Future Army vertical lift will reshape the rotorcraft industry and companies know it

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The US military has not developed a brand new rotorcraft combat aircraft since the Reagan years.

Now he’s developing two: an armed reconnaissance helicopter and a larger assault plane, which could be a helicopter or tilt rotor similar to the Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey.

Both planes are funded under what the military calls the Future Vertical Lift (FVL)

FVL
program, which also pursues next-generation unmanned aerial systems and supporting technologies.

If FVL stays on track, it will eventually build 30 reconnaissance and 60 assault jets per year, making the U.S. military by far the biggest source of demand for the domestic rotorcraft industry.

The US rotorcraft industry is currently dominated by three leading integrators: Bell, Boeing

BA
and Sikorski.

All three companies were founded by aviation pioneers in the mid-20th century, and all three are now business units within large aerospace conglomerates.

Each player’s parent companies contribute to my think tank, so I’ve heard a lot about Future Vertical Lift since its inception.

The one thing companies rarely bring up is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: if competitors fail to win an FVL contract when the program begins picking winners next year, their future business prospects will be severely limited.

The winners will be virtually guaranteed to occupy a leading role in the sector for decades to come.

Thus, the future of the domestic rotorcraft industry is now in the hands of the US military.

With that in mind, earlier this month I interviewed Major General Walter Rugen, the highly decorated Army aviator who oversees the FVL.

It’s not the first time I’ve spoken to Rugen, and he has pointed out to me several times over the years that FVL potentially has significant industrial implications.

For example, if one of the two currently competing planes ends up being canceled, then at least one of the rotorcraft houses will certainly be a big loser.

The reconnaissance helicopter competes between Bell and Sikorsky, while the assault helicopter competes between Bell and a Boeing-Sikorsky team.

As long as there are two different planes to be awarded, it’s easy to imagine how each competitor could earn enough business to remain viable, although Rugen points out that industry-based considerations are not part of the selection criteria for choose the winners.

But if one of the efforts goes missing, or if both efforts are allotted to the same team, then at least one competitor will be devastated.

General Rugen was concerned enough about the fallout from the industrial base that shortly after taking over as head of the FVL organization three years ago, he informed army chiefs of the potential consequences.

He notes that the Army is rapidly “buying back” its existing rotorcraft fleet, which means that there will not be much money left in the future for planes outside the FVL program.

Of course, Congress could still add money to legacy programs even if the military doesn’t ask for it, but that money would go to older planes that lack features like electric flight controls.

Future Vertical Lift, as the name suggests, is about the future, not only of military aviation, but also of the rotorcraft industry.

Given the dynamics of the industry, Rugen has continually assessed the health of the industry going forward, not only among first level integrators, but up to the second and third levels where vital subsystems are produced for the industry. final plane.

Additionally, the program not only assesses the industry’s ability to produce future rotorcraft, but also to maintain them once deployed in the final decades of the century.

And it is monitoring the health of potential drone vendors who will aid in the combat setup of each rotorcraft.

For example, the armed reconnaissance helicopter of the future will make extensive use of unmanned and outboard systems to improve its survivability and ability to identify ephemeral targets.

So General Rugen’s team needs to know how reliable potential vendors of unmanned systems are.

Some of these systems will be relatively new to the battlefield, such as the “air-launched effects” plane which will perform a range of tasks potentially too dangerous for the rotorcraft itself.

In other words, it is not enough to understand the aviation part of the industry — Gen. Rugen must maintain a detailed understanding of the associated and supporting industries providing sensors, ammunition and other inputs to the final combat system.

So far, he says, “we’re in a good position,” in part because the military has encouraged contributions to the LVF from traditional and non-traditional suppliers.

Rugen is convinced that US industry can provide everything the military needs for the future vertical lift as long as adequate attention is given to incentives, for example, protection of intellectual property and securing funding. stable.

This is a distinct departure from past practice in military procurement, where, as one grizzled military officer pointed out to me, “It is not my job to ensure that these companies are profitable “.

Major Rugen and his counterparts in other Army modernization programs recognize that the Army can no longer afford to adopt such a cavalier attitude.

Because whether they like it or not, the programs they run will have a lasting impact on the industry, and bad choices could diminish rather than strengthen America’s ability to compete with China.

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