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How American is Marine One?

Marine One is among the best known symbols of presidential power. A gleaming green and white helicopter frequently swoops onto the White House South Lawn these days to carry President Bush off on another election-year trip.

But it is also a symbol of the tension between domestic politics and international relations. As the Bush administration shops for a new generation of presidential helicopters, it is considering a manufacturer with ties to loyal friends abroad. That raises the question, how American should Marine One be?

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After 30 years in the air, the 19 helicopters in the presidential fleet are old in aircraft terms. So the Navy is running a competition to select a company to develop the next Marine One. The contract is worth $1.6 billion.

Two firms are locked in a battle for the business. Struggling Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, based in Connecticut, has built and maintained the presidential helicopter fleet since 1957. Its VH-92 entry will be "engineered, manufactured, and assembled in America," firm president Steve Finger says.

The other entry comes from a partnership between Lockheed Martin Corporation and AgustaWestland, the latter being a joint Italian and British venture. Lockheed says it would manufacture the helicopter in upstate New York, but the design comes from overseas. Not surprisingly, this version is strongly supported by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and British Prime Minister Tony Blair - two of President Bush's staunchest allies in the Iraq war.

The Navy has put off picking a winner until after the election. It would be surprising if Sikorsky's 100 percent American bid does not carry the day, leaving the US to find another way to reward its foreign friends.


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