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Why Do Commercial Platforms Make Such Lousy Military Aircraft?

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The above is the question that the US Department of Defense is asking itself, courtesy of a new Defense Science Board Task Force chaired by Jacques Gansler. I wrote about the issue in a news analysis published this week in Flight International. I've posted an excerpt below, and you can read the full story here.

Taking an "off-the-shelf" aircraft and adapting it for a new military role was supposed to be the cheap and easy alternative to designing an all-new platform.

So, in accord with the mantra "faster, better and cheaper", US military services since 2001 have often turned to off-the-shelf derivatives of commercial and military aircraft to satisfy new and emerging requirements for a wide range of missions, including scout and utility helicopters, VIP transports, surveillance aircraft and aerial tankers, to name but a few.

The results, however, have proved disappointing. Far from removing cost and schedule risks, procurements based on off-the-shelf aircraft and similar equipment have led to some of the most expensive acquisition fiascos for the US military over the last decade.

Examples range from aborted efforts, such as the ERJ-145-based aerial common sensor (ACS) or the 767-400ER-based E-10A, to multi-billion dollar development fiascos, as endured by the EH101-based VH-71A presidential helicopter and the Bell 407-based ARH-71A armed reconnaissance helicopter.

Despite the dubious track record, off-the-shelf alternatives remain popular. A pending contract for an unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft, as well future procurements for new signals intelligence fleets, are all expected to rely on platforms originally designed to perform a different role.

Jacques Gansler, a former US undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics (ATL), has been recruited to help solve the Department of Defense's problem.

"A lot of the older systems also had the same characteristics" as today's off-the-shelf aircraft programmes, Gansler says, adding: "We've just got a collection now of bad stories."

Current ATL chief John Young has tapped Gansler to chair a task force aimed at evaluating the reasons why acquisition programmes based on off-the-shelf equipment often fail or face costly delays.

-- Steve Trimble

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