Marine One Upgrade Plan Stirs Debate

CBS News obtained exclusive pictures of the next generation presidential chopper going through a test flight.

When President Obama returned today from Chicago, he arrived at the White House on Marine One - one of a fleet of presidential helicopters that is now 30 years old, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr.

A new Marine One is supposed to take off next year and CBS News has obtained exclusive pictures of the next generation presidential chopper going through a test flight.

But, runaway costs threaten to ground the replacements.

Lockheed-Martin signed a contract four years ago to build 28 new helicopters for $6.1 billion. Numerous Pentagon-mandated changes have ballooned the price tag to $11.2 billion - meaning each of the new choppers would cost $400 million, or as much as Air Force One.

Defense analyst Daniel Goure argues the new Marine One must be able to completely protect the president.

The armored helicopter would be equipped with tons of communications gear and defensive systems capable of fending off missiles and even the effects of a nuclear blast.

"The president will be able to do anything and everything he does on Air Force One or from the national command post in the White House," Goure says. "He can launch a nuclear war if that's what's required."

The Pentagon says it needs 28 of the helicopters because they have to cover the president everywhere he goes, usually three at each stop. This week there will be choppers in Chicago, Denver, Phoenix and Ottawa.

But critics say the helicopters are the latest example of out-of-control spending - especially unaffordable in the current recession.

And Lieutenant Colonel Gene Boyer, who flew Marine One the day Richard Nixon resigned, says there's no way the government needs 28 of them.

"In this economy, I believe it's a foolish investment and going beyond 14 to 16 helicopters is absolutely ludicrous," Boyer says.

The program is so far over budget the White House could pull the plug. But it could take years to build cheaper replacements and security officials warn in a post-9/11 world it's the wrong place to be cutting corners.