President Joe Biden will not board the new Presidential Sikorsky VH-92A helicopter at this time, after the program was hit by more delays due to its inability to meet the demands of the all-important “White Top” role Marine One. Among the latest deficiencies identified is the inability to reliably undertake emergency flights, potentially such as those associated with the critical continuity of the government mission.
A report today from Bloomberg quoted a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, who confirmed that the Biden administration is still investigating whether the VH-92A can be safely put into service with Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1 ).
Bloomberg also obtained an internal summary from the US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) test office, dated September 28, which describes the VH-92A as “not meeting its reliability, availability or maintainability requirements” imposed.
This same summary notes that the helicopter is not considered “operationally operable” and that this is of particular concern for the continuity of the government’s set of missions and other military operations. ’emergency. This is obviously a significant loophole in an airplane that, for example, should take the President to where he is needed if something catastrophic were to happen.
The full extent of the problems that prevent the VH-92A from reliably performing these critical operations is unclear, although the Bloomberg The report points to deficiencies in the Mission Communication System (MCS). According to the test bureau’s summary, the MCS “often delayed critical communications at the start of emergency missions and did not adequately support timely, continuous and secure communications.”
When there was an issue with the MCS, maintenance managers did not have the diagnostic capability required at the squadron level, while it took too long to access system components that needed to be repaired. .
The MCS issue emerged in the most recent Director of Operational Testing and Evaluation (DOT&E) report to be released for FY2020, which indicated that MCS version 3.0 had started testing in January 2020. This version “incorporated recommendations from the DOT&E VH-92A OT-B1 Operational Assessment Report, dated May 28, 2019, including the use of MCS test scripts that helped uncover deficiencies during the assessment. The program office fixed shortcomings in the MCS, discovered during testing. ”
Regarding MCS 3.0, the DOT&E report highlighted the requirement for “hardware design changes […] in particular the cords of the intercommunication systems, to improve the user-friendliness of the communication equipment at the various passenger seats of the airplane.
The same DOT&E report noted that five iterative versions of MCS 3.1 software had also been tested, while the NAVAIR design team “continues to make improvements,” with MCS 3.2 scheduled to begin testing in January 2021.
Again, needless to say, during a potential crisis, in which the President might need to be transported quickly for his own safety and potentially that of the country, reliable communications would be paramount to success in any scenario. rapidly changing. Deficiencies in the communications system could potentially impact the president’s ability to connect to the National Command Authority, which would impact the credibility and usability of US nuclear deterrence. Either way, reliable communications during a crisis are absolutely essential for the president to maintain command and control when it is needed most.
The test summary obtained by Bloomberg further emphasizes “instability, faults of the cabin interior, frequent maintenance inspections and rear stair door components” which combine to slow down the maintenance process and reduce the availability of the airplane.
The problems inherited from the helicopter also persist. As early as September 2018, it was discovered that the VH-92A’s exhaust and engine rotors could damage the South Lawn of the White House, where Marine One regularly operates. The summary of the test report confirms that this problem has still not been resolved, as evidenced by a succession of reports on this subject since its discovery.
“Engine exhaust and fluid discharges are causing damage limitations to the landing zone, limiting the number of available landing zones,” the summary reads, before calling on the Marines to “continue to reduce the effects of engine exhaust and fluid discharges “. It is not clear how this could be achieved.
With all of that in mind, the White House military office has yet to approve a first presidential flight with the VH-92A, as it reassesses the schedule for the new helicopter.
Previously, it was expected that the VH-92A would begin to replace the iconic VH-3D when it reached Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in July, which never happened. It was then planned to start replacing the Black Hawk-based VH-60Ns, a process expected to be completed by 2023, when a full fleet of 23 of the new helicopters would be available. The IOC had already been pushed back successively compared to an earlier target of June 2020 and January of this year.
However, it’s not all bad news for the VH-92A. The same test report confirms that the helicopter is suitable for routine “administrative” missions. These could include a scheduled shuttle to Camp David or transporting the president to Joint Base Andrews outside Washington to connect to a pre-planned Air Force One flight.
While this reflects a degree of “operational efficiency,” it is hardly what Pentagon and White House officials would have hoped for for the $ 5 billion VH-92 program.
It’s also unclear why it has taken so far for details of the delays to be made public. Three months of DOT&E testing had already been completed in April of this year and early August, Marine Corps Major General Greg Masiello, head of the Air Anti-Submarine Warfare, Assault, and Special Mission Programs at NAVAIR, said “the squadron and the program are ready today.
Bloomberg approached the testing office to determine what had happened as a result of the three-month trial period, but was told the results constituted “controlled unclassified information.” A spokeswoman for the testing bureau said the tests were aimed at assessing whether the VH-92A was “efficient and suitable for carrying the president, vice president, cabinet members and heads of state.”
Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the Navy’s deputy aviation commander said Bloomberg that “the report did not raise any issues” that the program office and the Marine Corps “were not aware of, or that the issues were corrected before.” However, the same spokesperson could not confirm when the VH-92A might actually start flying missions with the president on board.
A spokesperson for Lockheed’s Sikorsky aircraft division, responsible for the construction of the VH-92A, said the division “continues to work closely with our customer to ensure the aircraft meets all requirements. operational requirements “.
At present, therefore, it is not known when the VH-92A will start flying the prestigious Marine One mission. However, with the Navy having placed orders for the entire 23 VH-92A fleet, with $ 1.5 billion already spent on them, it is clear that solutions to the various outstanding issues will need to be found if the helicopters fully fulfill their purpose. mission. spectrum. Any further delay is the last thing the VMX-1 needs, as the need to replace the VH-3D and VH-60N becomes more and more urgent.
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