Objections To VH-71 Cancellation Grow Louder

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By Bettina H. Chavanne

Lawmakers in both houses of Congress are protesting Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ decision to terminate the VH-71 presidential helicopter, with now near-daily complaints growing more numerous.

The latest salvo was launched by Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey, whose upstate New York district includes Lockheed Martin’s VH-71 headquarters in Owego. This week, Hinchey said the official letter of termination issued by the U.S. Navy Department “does not change the circumstances surrounding my efforts…to continue funding” the current presidential helicopter replacement program. The Italian defense minister and pro-industry supporters in Washington also have spoken up lately.

Primary among the complaints is that the Pentagon made its decision without consulting Congress. “The Constitution is clear that Congress has the authority and responsibility to determine how federal money is spent,” Hinchey said. The decision over the helo – designed to carry the commander in chief and other White House staff – will ultimately be made by Congress, the congressman asserted.

In a June 4 teleconference hosted by the pro-industry Lexington Institute, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), an outspoken critic of Gates’ decision, questioned the Navy’s termination on legal and even moral grounds. “I think the Secretary of Defense has acted outside his prerogative to cancel this program,” said Bartlett, who is ostensibly in line to lead the House Armed Services Committee’s Republicans now that their leader, Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), has been tapped to become the Army’s secretary. “We’re partners with the Pentagon and the White House, but they had this conversation outside the partnership and we regret that.”

Lexington analyst Loren Thompson, who has advocated for Lockheed programs before, said Gates “short-circuited” the “fairly rigorous” decision-making process. Thompson has been prominent in his criticism, with increased media outreach and prepared statements on VH-71 recently.

Meantime, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa has written Gates explaining his own concern, as AgustaWestland is providing the base aircraft. La Russa touted the issue of jobs under threat in Italy and the United Kingdom and has offered “assistance” in finding a solution. He has also said AgustaWestland should offer the widest cooperation to identify the best way to allow the program of record to proceed.

The minister further stressed that there are many important aviation activities shared by Italy and the United States, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But La Russa said he was not considering retaliation.

Still, VH-71 probably will be a topic of discussion between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and President Barack Obama during their first bilateral meeting. The U.K. government has so far opted for a softer approach, but some lobbying initiatives have also been undertaken in London.

AgustaWestland and parent Finmeccanica continue to consider the termination of the VH-71 as a pure political decision of the new Obama administration and without any operational or even financial foundation. Alternatives could prove both less secure for the President and costlier, industry officials suggest.

Photo: AgustaWestland

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