Helicopter Suppliers Must Modernize, Says Defense Industrial Policy Chief

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The Defense Department predicts that military helicopter suppliers likely will recover from the current slump in aircraft production, but the cure will require significant investments in new manufacturing technologies.

Existing overcapacity in the helicopter industry should subside as programs such as the V-22 Osprey and other aircraft begin full production, says Suzanne Patrick, deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial policy.

Helicopter manufacturers, additionally, will need to gain a competitive advantage by becoming more innovative in their designs and production, Patrick tells National Defense in a recent interview.

Robust manufacturing programs, she says, will attract engineers and help revitalize the aging rotorcraft industry work force. In a report Patrick released last year, she concludes that remanufacturing and upgrades alone would not compel the helicopter industry to develop next-generation technologies needed for 2020, and beyond.

"We've tried to get at the root causes for the lack of innovation," she says. The report warned that without improved technology, major U.S. rotorcraft manufacturers could lose business to foreign competitors.

All three major domestic military helicopter manufacturers are busy remanufacturing or replacing aircraft that were damaged or destroyed in combat. Bell Helicopter is producing 180 AH-1Z attack and 100 UH-1Y utility helicopters for the Marine Corps. Boeing is delivering 517 modernized and new Longbow Apaches and will manufacture 513 new Chinooks to the Army, Sikorsky will soon start on 254 new Seahawks for the Navy and 1,213 new Black Hawks for the Army:

An opportunity for the industry to design and manufacture an entirely new rotorcraft may arrive if the Defense Department decides to fund a joint-service heavy-lift aircraft that would be fielded around 2020. The Marine Corps plans to replace its aging Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallions with 154 new CH-53Xs, which would enter service in 2015.

Upcoming military helicopter competitions, meanwhile, will seek bids that are based on existing commercial aircraft, and will not require substantial development of new technologies. Examples of this trend are the Air Force personnel recovery vehicle and the Army armed reconnaissance and light utility helicopters.

The Air Force PRV, however, will require advanced mission equipment and has demanding performance requirements for propulsion, flight control and vibration control. "It will be up to the Air Force to determine how much they want to fund the integration of this off-the-shelf technology," says Patrick. The service wants 141 new helicopters to replace Sikorsky Pave Hawks.

A solicitation for industry bids is scheduled to be released this summer for a contract award by February 2006. The helicopters would be in operation by 2011. Competitors right now include the Bell Boeing V-22, Boeing CH-47, Lockheed Martin US101 and Sikorsky H-92.

The Defense Department also will factor safety features into the selection of new helicopters, Patrick explains.

A Pentagon report released a year ago, "The Vertical Lift Industrial Base: Outlook 2004-2014," warned that widespread lack of innovation in the rotorcraft industry could jeopardize the Defense Department's plans to modernize the force. "It is only through an open, competitive market that the department can meet its goal of procuring the best weapon systems," adds Patrick.

Contractors should get extra credit for "lean manufacturing facilities and state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities," she adds.

The Pentagon's industrial policy office in 2002 characterized the U.S. helicopter industry as a "1970s-vintage cartel" that relies on sole-source contracts and teaming arrangements. Patrick now backs off from that assessment. "The term cartel was not accurate nor indeed fair," she says. "In part, the behavior of the government with regard to how we structured opportunities might have been a bit at fault as well. …