Air Force to keep one airborne VIP capsule suite -- instead of 10

The Air Force has said it will maintain only one controversial airborne VIP suite equipped with a couch and a 37-inch flat-screen TV -- instead of the 10 originally planned to transport high officials.

The service additionally operates four VIP pallets equipped with conference tables and airline-type business-class seats. Earlier this month, Air Force officials said they planned to award a sole-source contract for continued support of the VIP suite and pallets.

The Air Force initially intended to buy 10 of the VIP suites, known as senior leader in-transit conference capsules, until the Project on Government Oversight exposed them as a "breathtaking extravagance" in a highly publicized letter to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in July 2008.

Internal documents POGO obtained showed that the Air Mobility Command wanted the $3 million capsules to include "world-class" amenities, including wall-to-wall carpeting, 37-inch flat-screen video monitors, and "aesthetically pleasing" wall and ceiling coverings. The capsules were to be carried on C-130 and C-17 cargo aircraft and KC-135 and KC-10 tanker aircraft.

The four senior leader in-transit pallets, whose total cost POGO estimated at $1.66 million in 2008, featured "four leather business-class chairs with tables" that can be transported in the same aircraft as the capsules, except for the C-130

The Air Force said in a July 2008 press release that military officials would be safer on military aircraft equipped with the airborne VIP systems than on unprotected commercial aircraft.

The Air Force Materiel Command issued a notice on March 5 that it planned to award a sole-source contract to Centerville, Ohio-based SelectTech Services Corp. for continued logistics support for its scaled back collection of capsules and pallets.

A spokeswoman for the Aerospace Sustainment Directorate at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., said SelectTech Services was tapped because it was the only company that met the criteria required to sustain the equipment. She put the value of the first year of the contract at $2.1 million and said it had four option years.

Maj. Michael Andrews, a spokesman for the Air Mobility Command, said the one suite in use today is assigned to the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, currently Army Gen. John Allen, and consists of two parts -- a conference capsule and a quarters capsule. Andrews said the suite seats five passengers: two in bucket seats and three on a couch. The space also includes a table work area between the bucket seats, one 37-inch video screen, and connections for externally provided data and voice communications.

The four pallets can support the secretaries of State and Homeland Security, the National Intelligence director, Defense secretary, Defense deputy secretary, chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and combatant commanders, Andrews said. They are located at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; Dover Air Force Base, Del.; Joint Base Charleston, S.C.; and Travis Air Force Base, Calif., he said.

Joe Newman, a POGO spokesman, said while the organization does not expect high-level officials to use wooden crates for seats, the continued costs to maintain the capsule and pallets "do no meet the smell test." Newman said the $2.1 million follow-on contract is "an outrageous amount of money [that] just compounds a previous error."