Protect America's Pride; U.S. Helicopter Industry at Risk
Byline: Malcolm Wallop, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
You may not be aware of it, but there are actually two presidential campaigns underway this year. Despite little attention from pollsters, pundits or the political parties, the increasingly heated competition to determine who will build the next fleet of helicopters for presidential service is still important in terms of both symbolism and substance.
For the first time ever, Marine One, the official helicopter of every president since Eisenhower, faces a real possibility of being built by a foreign manufacturer. I don't know about you, but when I learned of this I scratched my head in baffled disbelief. Shouldn't the president of the United States fly in an American-made helicopter?
Why would the Department of Defense even consider relying on Italy's AgustaWestland to design, build and maintain such an important symbol of American pride, strength and security?
At one point, the answer to this question seemed quite clear and simple. In January of last year, Prime Minister Tony Blair made a personal plea to President Bush on behalf of the British company GKN, then a half-share owner of AugustaWestland. Mr. Blair asked Mr. Bush to "look favorably" upon the company's bid - clearly a tacit request for at least some form of political payback for Britain's support in the Iraq war.
With GKN's recent sale of AgustaWestland to Italy's Finmeccanica, this quid pro quo for Britain's support may no longer be a factor in the awarding of this prestigious contract. I contend it never should have been. We also should consider Italy and its history of "support" for the United States - from their refusal to support President Reagan in the 1986 strike against Libya, to its refusal to allow U.S. F-117s to base at Italy's Aviano NATO airbase. Perhaps we might have gotten a more sympathetic response from another of the 59 governments that have led Italy over the past 58 years, but is that really the kind of track record of support we want to rely upon for technical guidance and parts for our military, let alone our president?
Putting aside all-American pride, there are some very real reasons why granting this contract to a European-led consortium would be irresponsible, even risky.
First, this contract is about far more than procuring a fleet of 23 helicopters for presidential service - it's about the future of the American helicopter industry. The multi-millions of dollars in research and development funding that accompanies this contract will effectively determine who controls the future of advanced helicopter technology for decades to come, in this case either the Sikorsky Aircraft, the U. …