VH-92 Closer To Being ‘Marine One’ But Comms System Could Still Cause Delays
Without fixes to the Mission Communication System, the VH-92 can’t carry the U.S. president and other top government officials.
The Marine Corps has declared the new VH-92A Presidential Helicopter operational and is beginning the process of integrating them into the fleet that carries the U.S. head of state as "Marine One." But problems with the all-important secure communications system the helicopter carries could delay its full entry to service unless a fix is funded.
Initial operational capability of the Sikorsky-built VH-92 was declared on Dec. 28 but the White House Military Office (WHMO) won't let the Marine Corps begin transporting President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, other senior officials, their family members and dignitaries until its Mission Communication System (MCS) is more reliable.
IOC was an “event-driven goal,” according to Marine Corps Maj. Jay Hernandez, a spokesperson for Marine Corps Aviation. “The Marine Corps worked with the White House Military Office, Presidential Helicopters Program Office (PMA-274), and Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) to ensure the conditions are set for a successful transition from the current in-service VH-3D and VH-60 aircraft to the VH-92A.”
Hernandez goes on to say the VH-92 program “remains within budgeted cost and schedule as approved by Congress.” Plans are to have all 23 VH-92s in the Marine Corps' inventory in Fiscal Year 2023, which begins on October 1 of this year. Of those, 21 are expected to be available for software and hardware retrofits in the upcoming fiscal cycle, a 50-percent increase in available aircraft, according to the Navy’s 2023 Fiscal Year budget request. The Marine Corps’ budget is nestled within the Navy’s and Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) is overseeing the VH-92 program.
Jay Stefany, the Navy’s top acquisition official told House lawmakers earlier this month that "we are now starting the White House commissioning efforts for that helicopter.”
IOC was once previously set for July 2021, which itself was a delay from an initial scheduled entry to service in mid-2020.
The Navy also notes in its fiscal 2023 budget that full operational capability could be delayed if funding is not made available to address ongoing deficiencies with the helicopter's MCS, which allows VIP passengers a secure connection to other government agencies while onboard. It serves the same purpose as the system that Air Force One carries and allows the president and other officials super-highspeed, encrypted communication without interruption anywhere in the world, especially to the National Command Authority that underpins the nuclear deterrent. It is essential for the presidential lift mission and therefore required before the VH-92 can take over for the VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters currently flown by Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1).
MCS is a wideband line-of-sight communication link made up of two separate systems: Hydra Light and Crisis Management. The Hydra Light system consists of a radio, antenna, and amplifier that allow voice over IP (VoIP) calls to be made using the Phoenix Air-to-Ground Communications Network (PAGCN) structure, according to Navy budget documents. The Crisis Management system is the router, call manager, and High Assurance Internet Protocol Encryptor (HAIPE) required to connect to the Defense Information Systems Agency’s secure network.
Similar systems have already been installed on HMX-1’s VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters that the VH-92 is set to replace beginning in fiscal year 2023. The Marine Corps began buying new radios, antennas, accessories and operational flight programs in 2016, according to the Navy’s budget documents. Those aircraft are aging out of the role and are scheduled to undergo a service life extension to lengthen their operational lifespan by 4,000 hours so they can stay in service until the VH-92 is fully developed and fielded.
Included in the Navy’s budget request is $52.3 million, of which $16 million is required for Mission Communication System MCS version 4.0 and MCS 5.0 incorporation, installation tooling, validation and verification of corrections of deficiencies, and to address obsolescence issues. If that funding fails to come through, full operational capability will be postponed, according to the Navy.
“If increased funds are not made available, critical correction of deficiencies and emergency service communication enhancements will be delayed or not implemented, and requirements for Full Operation Capability will be delayed,” the service's budget says. “Aircraft readiness will be negatively affected along with adverse impacts to global communications capability and survivability. This would degrade overall aircraft performance and mission effectiveness.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in its 2020 annual weapons assessment and again in 2021, the most recent report, that “the Navy completed an operational assessment in April 2019 and identified MCS-related performance shortfalls, some of which led to inconsistent and unreliable communications” that persist.
When it enters service, the VH-92, based on Sikorsky’s commercial S-92, will be the most sophisticated presidential helicopter in the world. Other heads of state fly the basic airframe, like South Korea’s president-elect, but they are modified commercial helicopters. The VH-92 is purposed built to carry U.S. presidents and government officials and is packed with sophisticated — and classified — self-defense, survivability, avionics and communication equipment that Sikorsky installs on behalf of the government in Owego, New York.
Despite the Navy and Marine Corps being bullish about VH-92 development and integration, the program has been beset by issues noted in repeated test and evaluation reports. Aside from the MCS, the aircraft’s twin 2,500-shaft-horsepower General Electric CT7-8A engines scorched the White House lawn on several occasions during testing. The engine exhausts had to be modified to eliminate the issue, which was fixed during the Trump administration, though he never got a ride in it as commander in chief.
It’s unclear when the WHMO will decide the VH-92A is ready to ferry the president, often around the Washington, D.C., area between the White House, Andrews Air Force Base where Air Force One is stationed, and the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland. It could be sooner than budget documents suggest, but the IOC declaration has little bearing on the operational utility of these aircraft without full operational capability, meaning all the communications equipment is in working order. When traveling abroad, two helicopters accompany the president to each site he lands, whether they are used for transportation or not. When in the air, at least two fly together to create a 'shell-game,' making it difficult for anyone who would target the one the president rides in.
The VH-92 has been spotted flying along the Potomac River and landing at the White House several times during training flights. In March 2019, two of them were seen flying in formation, photos of which provided excellent views of the various communication devices and antennas that dot the fuselage.
All the way back in August 2021, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Greg Masiello, program executive officer for air anti-submarine warfare, assault, and special mission programs at NAVAIR, said HMX-1 "and the program are ready today. So, we have enough aircraft for the initial usage. We have enough pilots that are trained. We have the support equipment."
Even considering the VH-92 initially capable, one thing HMX-1 does not have is the system most needed for the WHMO to let the Marines fly the president. It could possibly fly other, less-important people in a pinch but it won't carry the callsign "Marine One."
Contact the author: Dan@thewarzone.com