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Airlift Gap Looms For Last Mile

Yesterday, we highlighted a new initiative from DoD acquisition chief Ashton Carter’s office to extend a lifeline to the troubled rotary wing industry by collecting money from fragmented research efforts across government and funneling it to the most promising new technologies.

Today, on Capitol Hill, came further warnings from a panel of budget and industry analysts on the fragile state of the helicopter industry. Congressional Research Service analyst Stephen Daggett said the defense industrial base would largely weather a projected reduction in procurement spending, except for the helicopter industry. That industry segment is losing market share and talent to European companies, he said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

On the same panel, CSIS’s David Berteau also warned of the risks facing the helicopter base in a period of declining procurement budgets. The most innovative technologies no longer come from U.S. helicopter builders, rather, European companies are pushing the envelope. The technology gap between commercial and military helicopters is much narrower in Europe than in the U.S., he said, which makes dual-use, and the larger margins from shared commercial and military helicopters, more viable.

The biggest challenges facing the helicopter industry is the lack of “demand.” There are no new start programs in the Future Year Defense Program (FYDP) and no signals from DoD on big future rotary wing programs. That is why this new report from the Government Accountability Office is so interesting. GAO’s auditors warn of a looming “tactical airlift gap” because there is no aircraft currently able to move the Army’s “medium weight” weapons about the battlefield.

Only the C-17 is large enough to carry Strykers and MRAPs, once all those vehicle’s weapons, RPG cages and other armor packages are installed. They don’t fit inside C-130s. The C-17, however, is too large to fly into small, unimproved strips close to the front lines, what the Army often calls the “last tactical mile.”

GAO notes that DoD plans to come up with some kind of aircraft that fits the bill, and to replace the C-130H, in the Joint Future Theater Lift (JFTL) effort, which is still in the conceptual stages. The Army and Air Force are looking at both tilt-rotor -- the Army choice -- and fixed wing -- the Air Force choice -- options for an aircraft “capable of transporting current and future medium weight armored vehicles into austere locations with unprepared landing areas,” according to a draft Initial Capabilities Document.

The JFTL could potentially breathe some life into the troubled rotary wing industry, but it faces some serious headwinds. To begin with, the Air Force and Army don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on the JFTL.

The Army desperately wants an aircraft that will give them a “vertical mounted maneuver” capability, a very large tilt-rotor that can pick up troops and vehicles and move them rapidly about the battlefield. The ground vehicle part of the cancelled FCS program was originally supposed to build the vehicles to make vertical mounted maneuver a reality. GAO says the tilt-rotor would need a payload capacity five times that of the V-22 Osprey; the Army is reportedly looking at a 40 ton vehicle as the follow on effort to FCS.

The Air Force is looking to JFTL to provide a standard long-range transport to perform traditional airlift missions and is pursuing turbofan technology in a fixed-wing aircraft to operate on short, soft or rough airfields, said GAO.

Under the best of circumstances, which don’t apply under projected budget scenarios, the soonest a new JFTL aircraft could be fielded would be 2024. In the meantime, JFTL risks being sidelined by service disagreements over what it’s supposed to do, cost growth and the “overpromising performance” problem, warns GAO.

GAO recommends that the Army and Air Force follow an “evolutionary” strategy with JFTL that would select mature technologies; the needed tilt-rotor technology already exists. The Senate Armed Services Committee has also weighed in and requested that DoD “assess the merits of initiating a low-cost, highly streamlined competitive prototyping effort immediately.”

While JFTL might not solve the lack of innovative technologies problems in the rotary-wing base, it could potentially provide a much needed new program and procurement dollars.

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