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US Helo Industry Crashing; ATL Wants Industry Consortium

DoD is so worried about the long term health of the helicopter industry that acquisition chief Ashton Carter wants to corral the different services’ research and development money (altogether about $110 million) and funnel it to where it can have the most impact.

Now, research and development money from the services, NASA,  DARPA and the Coast Guard, is scattered across so many different efforts that none are making real progress toward developing innovative rotary-wing technologies. Carter's new initiative would include a partnership between government and an industry consortium.

The folks over at the Second Line of Defense (SLD) site posted a copy of Carter’s memo giving the go ahead for the new effort, along with slides presented at an October 27 “Vertical Lift Aviation Industry Day.” The slides include a briefing by Mike Walsh from OSD’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics office that is full of interesting information on the military’s helicopter fleet and future plans, or the lack thereof.

The big problem going forward for industry is that there is little money for rotary wing future plans. As one slide points out, there are no active research and development efforts after Apache Block III and CH-53K. Program cancellations, including the Army’s armed reconnaissance helicopter and the Air Force’s Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR-X), have taken a toll. Future DoD budget constraints will only worsen matters.

Currently, DoD’s rotary wing “portfolio” is focused on maintaining a “stable inventory” with upgrades to existing aircraft. On the “demand” side there are no new starts in the Future Year Defense Program (FYDP) and no clear signals on the way ahead, the briefing says. The absence of any future roadmap is playing havoc on the helicopter industry.

As for the state of the industry, Walsh’s briefing calls it “stagnant,” with “more production capacity than demand.” The U.S. helicopter base faces serious challenges from foreign builders and the industry’s technological leadership is “in doubt” because of an aging workforce and because there’s “no magic” in the works to attract creative new thinking and new talent.

Industry also suffers from poor credibility because of “recurring acquisition failures.” Without more money from DoD, industry won’t innovate on their own, according to Walsh’s briefing; the technology base is “unable to support leap-ahead possibilities.”

The proposed fix is a government and industry partnership, with industry and academia forming the consortium, which would establish a long term (20 year) “mechanism” to facilitate planning and new technologies and collect the fragmented S&T money. OSD proposes using the Other Transaction Authority (OTA) as a way of getting around the Federal Acquisition Regulations process.

SLD notes, “If this approach works, the consortia could set in motion a process, which could play the role of a forcing function for the industrial base… The consortia approach is clearly designed to try to reduce the paralyzing impact of the protest process on acquisition policy.”

Carter intends to move quickly on the new government-industry partnership and wants a Consortium Membership Agreement in place by the end of the year.

One of the most alarming slides included in Walsh’s briefing shows helicopter attrition from 2001 through 2008. Across the services, 327 helicopters have been lost along with 469 crew fatalities. The vast majority, 80 percent of losses, were non-combat related accidents. The briefing points to the harsh operating environment of Iraq and Afghanistan and the very high operational tempo for all rotary wing aircraft.

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