Flying Potlatch

Does one American in a thousand know that the Federal government is buying 23 VIP helicopters, each one of which will cost more than the extravagantly expensive F-22 fighter aircraft? A half-billion dollar helicopter – a half billion dollars each! – to ferry political hacks to their campaign events?

If the reader was unaware of that fact, we welcome him to Washington. The helicopter in question, the VH-71, is the government’s planned replacement for its current allegedly deficient presidential helicopter fleet. (One might well ask why even an elected monarch like the U.S. president needs twenty-three helicopters. At most, he might require one helicopter, a backup or two, a couple of training machines, and a pair to act as operational decoys. Rational math cannot count beyond 6 or 7, but the president’s vast retinue of hangers-on, coat holders, and post-pubescent appointees [the U.S. attorney scandal revealed what a sorry lot of inferior religious seminary graduates they typically are] is always raptured, so to speak, by the experience of getting VIP treatment several cuts above that experienced by the common herd of U.S. taxpayers on a Carnival cruise. Thus we are stuck with 23 flying palaces to transport the courtiers of the American emperor.)

The requirement ("requirement" is a government euphemism for "this is a really neat idea that will help my post-government career with a contractor") and go-ahead decision for the VH-71 were established in 2003, coincidentally the year the United States invaded Iraq along with its coalition of the willing. Oddly enough, the procurement authorities decided that a modification of the European EH-101 helicopter would suit the requirement just fine. By pure coincidence, this decision would benefit the British firm Westland and the Italian company Augusta. If any glory accrued to Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi, that surely would have been fortuitous. The idea that the White House paid off these worthies for assisting the administration in the invasion of Iraq has not been proved by transcripts of phone conversations or secret memoranda of understanding that have come to light; we will leave to the reader the onus of the obvious interpretation of events.

Naturally, Congress got involved, because anything involving aerospace contracts means a rich harvest of PAC checks. Forthwith, the cry rang out from Capitol Hill that domestic content was needed. Riding to the rescue was Lockheed Martin, an aerospace megacorporation with no known experience in helicopters since the abortive Cheyenne in the 1960s. They selflessly volunteered to be prime contractor. Bell, an outfit that ought to know something about rotorcraft, came in as a junior partner to Lock-Mart. Together with Augusta and Westland, the consortium marched bravely into the future of politically-guaranteed profits.

Of course, an off-the-shelf EH-101, reputedly a reasonably usable rotorcraft, was unsuitable either for the imperial pretentions of the presidency, or the needs of domestic porkbarrelling. Thus arose the metamorphosis of the EH-101 into the star-spangled US-101, the public-relations prototype that would ultimately become the military type designation VH-71.

This helicopter fit for a walking divinity (and/or his retinue) required nearly 2,000 requirements changes. Given the usual incompetence of the government procurement system, the cost increased apace with the change orders. The Pentagon’s Selected Acquisition Report (its most recent edition) from September 2007 lists the total program cost of VH-71 at $6.5 billion [pdf]. But the latest cost increases and schedule slips suggest that the total program cost may rise to $11 billion: nearly $500 million per aircraft. The cost overruns have become so egregious that the program has been frozen pending examination of alternatives.

One may safely assume that, consonant with virtually every U.S. aerospace program ever heard of, the VH-71 will not be cancelled, but "restructured," or perhaps stretched out. Anything but cancelled. No other "platform," as the military argot would have it, will quite fill the bill. No doubt there are many necessarily expensive add-ons to the original EH-101 required to keep our elected Ozymandias out of harm as he soars above the rabble. But an unawed American might ask: aren’t there better, cheaper alternatives?

Let us stipulate that the shooting down of a U.S. president would be a bad thing. One might ask whether a distinctively appearing, distinctively marked leviathan flying about would create more risk than a standard, common helicopter that could be mistaken for any other rotorcraft in the military or civilian inventory. The UH-60 Blackhawk is as common a sight above metropolitan Washington as a Lexus on the Capitol Beltway: it is inconspicuous. The UH-60 is also in the current presidential fleet.

But the UH-60, or any other helicopter, would inevitably have an Achilles heel if presidential security were the paramount criterion. Unfortunately for the taxpayer, presidential vanity has long since trumped the need for pure physical survival at least cost. Hence presidential chariots must be gaudily decorated in the imperial livery of Marine One, making them unnecessarily conspicuous. Hence the perceived need to equip the new presidential fleet with every conceivable spoofer, jammer, and communications link that sole source IT contractors can push on the VH-71 program manager.

The army and navy have announced their intention to buy a large quantity of Blackhawks over the next 5 years. The price would come to around $14 million each. Fourteen million as opposed to half a billion. Wouldn’t a UH-60 – as we have said, a rotorcraft already in the current presidential fleet – be far more cost effective than a VH-71, as well as safer, particularly if it were painted in inconspicuous colors mimicking a standard military paint scheme? One could put every conceivable bell and whistle on a Special Operations UH-60, as well as an Aga Khan-level interior, and there is no way it could remotely approach the unit cost of the VH-71 boondoggle.

The alert reader might object that the Blackhawk is smaller and more cramped than the VH-71. But what is the typical mission of the presidential helicopter fleet? Generally, it hauls our anointed thunder god from the White House grounds to Andrews Air Force Base, or to his Berghof in the nearby Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, or, in extremis, to Site R on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border: none of them journeys of much more than half an hour. If the trip is longer, generally the helicopter portion is just the first, brief leg to the Lucullan comfort of Air Force One. Surely a Man of the People, as even George W. Bush affects to be (bred to the bone oligarch though he is), could tolerate a cabin no more confining than the interior space of a Bugatti Veyron. (Priced at a mere €1.1 million per automobile (or "platform"), the Bugatti is a veritable bargain by U.S. government contracting standards.)

There is more. The Blackhawk is a thoroughly tested and reliable standard aircraft produced by the thousand, like an airborne Honda Civic. The VH-71, by contrast, will be a kluged-together modification of which only 23 copies will be built. Given the inevitable vagaries of engineering and testing, guess which helicopter is more likely to experience catastrophic mechanical failure while in flight?

The VH-71 is an example of the Potlatch syndrome, the tendency of overweening rulers to be extravagant for the sake of being extravagant. Potlatch was the practice of certain Indian tribes to demonstrate the wealth and power of their chief by piling up food, trade goods, and the like, and destroying them in a fire. Such a society, it goes without saying, is doomed. In less wantonly spectacular ways, many ancient states essentially practiced the same custom.

The American anthropologist Joseph Tainter wrote an intriguing work titled The Collapse of Complex Societies, wherein he posited that as a society matures and becomes more complex, its rulers (and beneficiaries) tend to evolve ritual behavior that does not benefit the survival of the society as a whole. On the contrary, they become so dedicated to defending an ever more ostentatious and extravagant status quo that their behavior actually contributes to the collapse of the society over which they reign.

The Mayan big men exhausted so much of their subjects’ resources on ceremonial pyramids celebrating the greatness of the big men that the society could not sustain the expense. Pyramids, after all, cannot provide habitation, or defense.

Peasants toiling on a Latifundia at the borders of the late Roman Empire, should they have been overrun by the "barbarians," actually found the tribute exacted by the wild barbarian tribes lower than that mulcted by their erstwhile Roman imperial masters. The sustainment costs of the empire, its sybaritic court, and its hideously expensive military, were simply too high by that point. When enough peasants caught on, the Roman Empire was doomed, not by military invasion, but by the fact that its subjects no longer believed the whole imperial contraption benefited them.

When will the subjects of the American monarch catch on that projects like the VH-71 are simply expressions of a superfluous and ruinously expensive ruling class’s contempt for them?

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