The Marine Corps is committing to mastering the communications system in the Presidential Helicopter Replacement (PHR) program to ensure the new helicopter to fly future presidents actually gets fielded.

A rotorcraft expert believes the communications suite on the presidential helicopter is incredibly important because no other rotary wing vehicle in the world needs to be able to communicate with virtually anyone in wartime. Lexington Institute think tank CEO Loren Thompson said recently when the president is onboard during wartime, there is the potential that he or she will need to be able to command nuclear forces or direct conventional attacks. To do this, Thompson said the PHR will need maximum connectivity, security and resistance against nuclear effects.

One of the "green" S-92s flies at Lockheed Martin's Owego, N.Y., campus. Photo: Sikorsky.
One of the “green” S-92s, EMD-1, flies at Lockheed Martin’s Owego, N.Y., campus. Photo: Sikorsky.

Marine Corps Program Manager PMA-274 Col. Robert Pridgen said recently the communications system is so important the government elected to be the integrator, a move Thompson called uncommon as industry usually serves as integrator. Though Pridgen said a goal of the PHR program is to prevent requirements creep and keep costs low, the Marine Corps elected to serve as integrator to ensure that if the service wanted to capitalize on advancements in communications technology as the program develops, it would be able to keep up.

Thompson said the Marine Corps, as PHR integrator, will have to merge the diverse spectrum of communications requirements that any aircraft in the world operates. Some, he said, would be normal UHF or VHF communications, but others would be specifically designed to resist certain types of effects, like electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

Navy spokeswoman Kelly Burdick said one challenge the program encountered was co-site interference associated with the antenna locations on the aircraft. The concerning issue, she said, was that interference can corrupt signals and deteriorate the quality of communications.

The program, Burdick said, initially used modeling and simulation (M&S) to determine antenna locations. The model was then verified during a dedicated risk reduction flight test period using a modified S-92A. Burdick said the results and lessons learned from the risk reduction flight test period were then incorporated into the design of the VH-92A.

Burdick said validating the program’s model with a real flight test was important to have confidence in the final placement of the antennas. She said the Navy went in went in with a proposed set of antenna locations based on the modeling and then optimized the design where appropriate, based on real flight test data.

Pridgen said the PHR’s communications system would be “very consistent” with what is now on the VH-3D Sea King, developed by Sikorsky [LMT], except for wideband line of sight communications. He called wideband a “larger pipe, larger volume” communications suite of radios.

A previous effort to replace the Sikorsky White Hawks and Sea Kings was killed in 2009 by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates after it fell under heavy criticism for anticipated cost overruns and delays, ending a process that had begun six years earlier. Pridgen told reporters recently of the 19 aircraft in inventory some have been around as early as 1974 while many of the White Hawks have been in service since the 1980s. The Marine Corps operates 11 VH-3Ds and eight VH-60Ns.

Pridgen said the Marine Corps is using a two-pronged approach to help contain requirements creep and keep the program under budget: keeping the aircraft FAA certified and running a requirements chain-of-command instituted by Pentagon acquisition czar Frank Kendall. Pridgen said if there was a change to a requirement that would affect cost, schedule or performance, there were layers of bureaucracy for that requirements change to overcome.

Coupled with the requirements chain-of-command was the order to keep the aircraft under FAA certification, which Thompson said is a safety provision to ensure that military aircraft can be seen by civilian helicopters. PHR is a special case, Thompson said, because the helicopter often flies in between restricted and commercial airspace, like on a trip from the White House south lawn to Andrews AFB, Md. Pridgen said if a requirements change is proposed, it must be able to fit within the “box” of FAA certification.

“That, quite frankly, has been one of the keys to success,” Pridgen told reporters at the recent Sea-Air-Space conference in National Harbor, Md.

The Marine Corps will buy 21 S-92s from Sikorsky as operational aircraft and two engineering and  manufacturing development (EMD) aircraft, Pridgen said. Sikorsky and the Marine Corps, Pridgen said, are set for an earlier-than-expected critical design review (CDR) in late July. Burdick, the Navy spokeswoman, said July 20 the program was undergoing CDR at Sikorsky’s Stratford, Ct., facility. A CDR is a multi-disciplined technical review to ensure a system can proceed into fabrication, demonstration and test and can meet stated performance requirements within cost, schedule and risk.

Pridgen said if the program is proceeding correctly, in May 2017 it will either have flown, or will be preparing to fly, the first EMD aircraft. After first flight, the government will take delivery of the aircraft for government testing one year later in 2018. Initial fielding is slated for 2020 with production running through 2023, according to the Navy.

Artist's conception of the Sikorsky S-92 that will become the new presidential helicopter. Photo: Navy.
Artist’s conception of the Sikorsky S-92 that will become the new presidential helicopter. Photo: Navy.

Thompson believes it is time for the presidential helicopter to be fielded. He said though President Obama gave the program a public death in 2009 by saying he was happy with his current helicopter, the president’s communication and logistical needs have changed significantly since the current rotorcraft were acquired.

New communications technology, Thompson said, has “exploded” and evolved rapidly since the ’70s and ’80s. He said while it could certainly be retrofitted into existing aircraft, he cited the long timeframe and expense of having to do so.

“You can certainly integrate them into the existing helicopter, but it’s not as efficient as having an integrated suite of communications and protection devices,” Thompson said.

An issue affecting the program will be how much money it is appropriated. While the fiscal year 2017 defense appropriations bill that passed the House provided the budget request of $338 million, the bill that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) only provides roughly $303 million. Progress on the appropriations bill stalled in the Senate as of Friday as Democrats vowed to hold up all appropriations bills until Republicans “publicly demonstrate their commitment to adhere to the framework of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.”

Democrats allege that Republicans broke last year’s agreement by inserting ideological poison pill riders into spending bills and failing to provide parity between military and non-military domestic spending, according to a letter from Democratic Sens. Harry Reid (Nev.), Richard Durbin (Ill.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Patty Murray (Wash.) to Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Thad Cochran (Miss).

The program is listed as Executive Helo Development in the bill reports for both the House Appropriations Committee (HAC) and SAC. The Navy awarded Sikorsky a $1.2 billion fixed-price incentive EMD contract in May 2014. Sikorsky was the only bidder.