Navy to Pick Presidential Helicopter Builders

The Pentagon gave the Navy the green light Thursday to choose a company to build the next presidential helicopter fleet, a decision with international and political implications.

A final selection is expected after stock markets close on Jan. 28. The Navy will determine whether Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. or Connecticut-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. will supply the next Marine One, the highly visible aircraft that shuttles the president on short trips.

Navy spokesman Lt. John Schofield said the Pentagon review board did not discuss or offer an opinion on which contractor the Navy should choose.

Winning the $1.6 billion contract for 23 aircraft won't make or break Lockheed or Sikorsky parent United Technologies Corp., both industry giants. But the contract has become a bellwether of competing interests: the outsourcing of American jobs versus how open the U.S. military market is to foreign contractors.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are among those who have lobbied President Bush to choose Lockheed's US101, which is based on a British-Italian AgustaWestland aircraft, now owned by Finmeccanica.

The two European countries have been staunch allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and choosing the US101 could quell complaints about the U.S. military market.

"There's a view that if Britain and Italy can't get this through, that this basically shows the U.S. market is closed," said London-based Merrill Lynch aerospace analyst Charles Armitage.

He said there is a general consensus that the US101 is probably a better helicopter, while Sikorsky may have the political edge in the United States.

"Some people would undoubtedly view the president using an Italian-British helicopter similar to having his Air Force One be a (French) Airbus A380," said Paul Nisbet, aerospace analyst at JSA Research. "I don't think that's going to happen. I think Sikorsky has that in their favor."

Lockheed has a major facility in Owego, N.Y.