TCS Daily

Keeping Taxpayer Dollars Grounded in Reality

By Tom Schatz - November 17, 2004 12:00 AM

While it is now certain that President Bush will serve another four years in The White House, it is uncertain as to how he will get off the ground and be safely transported from place to place. Although not as important as the recent Presidential election, the Defense Department's upcoming decision on a $1.6 billion helicopter contract to replace the president's aging Marine One fleet holds enormous ramifications for taxpayers.

In considering the appropriate contractor, the Pentagon's review process should include past performance. With Marine One, it would be prudent to remember one of the largest examples of wasteful spending at DOD, the ill-fated Comanche helicopter. A project of the company Sikorsky, the Comanche had it all: dazzling graphics, wide political support, great promises.

There was just one problem: The helicopter literally never took off. After 21 years and 8 billion taxpayer dollars, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld mercifully killed the program last February.

Now, Sikorsky wants the opportunity to develop another helicopter. Fresh on the heels of a smart decision about the company's last attempt to build helicopters for DOD, taxpayers should hope that the Pentagon avoids going down the same expensive and ultimately fruitless road it took back in 1985. DOD spent more than two decades on a project that never saw battle and never helped protect a single American soldier. Not one. And meanwhile, funds are lacking for body armor for the troops in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the red flags for another Comanche-style disaster are flying all over the place. For example, in 1998, Sikorsky said it would deliver the first S-92 commercial helicopter -- on which its proposed Marine One is based -- in 2001. By 1999, the delivery became "early 2002" and later mid-2002. The next target for delivery was the third quarter of 2003.

Finally, late in the third quarter of 2004, three years after it was promised, the first S-92 helicopter was delivered. While Sikorsky has not said precisely why it was so late, admits that the engines for the presidential version of the helicopter are still "in development phase."

Ultimately, all of this begs some important questions for the Defense Department: How much will it cost taxpayers to move the engines beyond "development phase" and turn them into working parts? Once that's done, how much will it cost taxpayers to produce the complete helicopters? And if there are cost overruns -- as Jay Leno might put it, "what are the odds of that?!" -- who will pay, the company or the taxpayers?

Given the $8 billion that recently went down the Comanche helicopter sinkhole, taxpayers are entitled to answers. Such information is all the more important because the products in question are not shopping carts or baby strollers. They are the helicopters that will carry the Commander-in-Chief at all times, and its capabilities are even more vital in a time of war or national emergency, like the ongoing battle against terrorism.

Buying on speculation is rarely a good idea, though for some government projects it is unavoidable. After all, the government doesn't buy helicopters the way an individual or a family buys a car. But taxpayers deserve to have costs stay on the ground -- and the President deserves a helicopter that can actually fly, not just go through a computer simulation.

Given America's $420 billion deficit and the continuing cost of war in Iraq, this is no time for the Department of Defense to give one more corporate giant with a checkered history of delivering on-time and on-budget a blank check from American taxpayers.

The author is President, Citizens Against Government Waste.


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