Army Aviation Long-Term Plans Not Forthcoming
Companies are willing to use their internal research-and-development funds to invest in new technologies and platforms, but they also have to be able to communicate with their shareholders that those investments are aligned with what the military needs, the executives said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Aviation Symposium in National Harbor, Md.
“Any company ... has the ability to make investments,” said Sam Mehta, president of Sikorsky Military Systems. “We can only do that to a certain point on our own. We need engagement. We need to know what your requirements are.”
Sikorsky has invested $50 million in internal research-and-development funding to build its X2 helicopter and will put even more dollars into the S-97, Mehta said. Multi-year contracts, such as the July 2012 order for additional Black Hawk helicopters, help give the company the stability to start such development programs.
The Defense Department has identified several capabilities as long-term needs, including a new program interchangeably called future vertical lift or joint multi-role. There is also an improved turbine engine program (ITEP) and further development of manned/unmanned teaming.
However, executives are looking for greater detail on those requirements, as well as how the Army plans to sustain current capabilities in the coming years.
Of course, all of the contractors would support the creation of new programs, such as an armed aerial scout, Mehta said. A new-start program would be especially critical to help train younger engineers and technicians who have never designed a helicopter from the ground up.
“We can build machines,” he said. “Building people who build those machines is not always as easy, and the risk in my mind ... is if we continue to not have new start, new technology programs, we're going to have generations of engineers who haven't been exposed to that."
"By the time something like future vertical lift comes along, who's designing it? Who's building this aircraft? Is that really the first development program we want them to be exposed to?" Mehta asked.
Steve Mundt, a former Army brigadier general and vice president of business development for EADS, said he was skeptical that industry and government are really looking 20 years into the future.
"The ITEP engine is a superb engine,” he said. “But are we serious that's going to be the end for the joint multi-role/future vertical lift platform that now is looking at a 2035 fielding date? We're still going to be settling with fossil fuels? We're not going to be talking about green or electric or hybrid or solar or something like that?"
Another concern is that the supply chain of larger defense contractors — made up mostly of small- and medium-sized businesses — may slow their own investments and factory upgrades, Mehta said.
In defense aviation, "we're competing against a lot of other industries out there,” he said. “We're fighting for our suppliers to put their best and their brightest on our programs, and every time they turn on the news and every time they see dysfunction and lack of predictability and investment, I think that makes them a little less willing to take that same risk."
The U.S. military budget will decrease in coming years, so executives said their companies are looking to expand their reach in foreign markets.
Defense contractors have an especially good opportunity to increase foreign military sales to allies in the Asia-Pacific as the U.S. military pivots to that region, Mehta said. "We need to get better at forming partnerships to make sure that we have efficient contracting process, and we need to design our products for export compliance."
Companies could even use foreign investment to develop new technology, Mundt said. "As you shift to the Asia-Pacific, they're not necessarily new requirements. What you need to do is ask yourself, 'Is anybody else interested in what I'm interested in, and can I leverage their money?'"
Photo Credit: Army