Air Force Secretary Michael Donley got peoples' attention when he broached the need for new "presidential support" aircraft in his keynote speech on Monday at the Air Force Association's trade show.
Naturally, reporters asked him about it in a press briefing later, and he said, all right, here's how it is: As we're looking across the board at the things we want to buy, we can't just keep to within the Future Years Defense Plan. Right on the other side, in "the late teens," will be the need to buy new presidential transport aircraft, Donley said.
Why is this a big deal? Just ask anyone who has seen the documentary "Air Force One," about the service of the jet in the administration of President Harrison Ford. And the Air Force's iconic VC-25As are equipped with who knows what incredible capabilities besides the presidential escape pod, the arms locker, the cargo ramp and all the other features you saw on screen. All of that, and the reality that the Air Force will buy only two copies -- assuming it replaces both in the current fleet -- could add up to a huge bill.
In certain quarters, Donley's mention of a new Air Force One could sound like nails on a chalkboard, because it reawakens memories of the once-ubiquitous presidential helicopter replacement program, now hibernating just outside of view. That chapter in acquisition history is held up as a case study in what DoD does wrong: Military and White House officials constantly shifted their requirements and ran out costs and schedules, until finally the helicopter program was killed and restarted after President Obama took office.
This is relevant for two reasons: First, the presidential helicopter program shows how difficult today's realities make buying the highly specialized but low quantities of aircraft the U.S. needs for this one-of-a-kind mission. Second, the helicopter replacement program, now known as VXX, today is supposed to begin delivering aircraft as early as 2017. (Boeing and a team comprising Lockheed and Sikorsky are battling to build the birds.) That tracks awfully close to the "late teens" estimate that Donley gave for a new Air Force One, and that means the White House could be replacing all its aircraft, to the tune of billions of dollars, almost all at once.
A few inferences: No president in Austerity America wants to have to budget billions of dollars for her or his own aircraft -- essential though they may be to replace worn out predecessors. It's possible that by the time all this comes due, the economy could be booming and the Pentagon's coffers could be flush, in which case nobody will care about the cost. But if the Washington of tomorrow is just an even more depressing version of the Washington of today -- this isn't that far into the future -- the political noise about recapitalizing the presidential fleet could make today's defense budget battles sound like a symphony.