Samir Mehta, president of Military Systems at helicopter giant Sikorsky, talks JMR, rapid prototyping and future markets. (Stuart Walls)
WASHINGTON — At last weekís Association of the United States Army (AUSA) conference, few programs stood out like the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) demonstrator competition. The winner will be in prime position to eventually replace the Armyís Black Hawk, Apache, Chinook and Kiowa rotorcraft fleet. Defense News sat down with Samir Mehta, president of Military Systems at helicopter giant Sikorsky, to talk JMR, rapid prototyping and future markets.
Q. You have done three ďrapid prototypingĒ projects, the Raider, Matrix and now Defiant. Is this the new model for the company?
A. Yes. I think it is the new model, because at a time when resources are tight, things like time to market, speed of innovation, when the aircraft gets fielded, when we can start performing our customers missions, thatís incredibly important. With long development programs, every year the program goes is another year the budgeting could be messed with. It could be cut, defunded, there are a lot of things that could happen. So every year of development is a year of vulnerability for a budgeting standpoint.
If you can essentially reduce the time it takes to develop, youíre also reducing the resources it takes to develop. Flight test is now a confirmation of the technologies you developed, not experimenting with the technologies youíve developed.
Q. What tools are you specifically thinking of?
A. System integration laboratories have come a long way. In years past, you had all of these independent systems being developed, and then the first time theyíve come together to work is in the actual test aircraft themselves. You get to work out the kinks and the issues there, not 10 minutes after you roll out first flight, which is a very different risk and cost equation. The advance in simulation also, being able to do much higher fidelity of real-world missions, helps the designers understand what the aircraft capabilities need to be.
Q. How do those tools come into play when developing new technologies?
A. From a business standpoint, you donít start making investment in technologies or initiatives without fully understanding what the length and size of that investment is going to be. Rapid prototyping allows us, as business people, to make investments. I donít look at it as an opportunity to reduce R&D. I see it as an opportunity to take your R&D and fund more than one key project.
If you look at our company, between Joint Multi-Role, the work on Matrix, the work on the S-97 Raider, the work that weíre doing on making our core products better, the work we are doing in manufacturing technology ó in order to fund those activities now and not have rapid prototyping, weíd either be spending twice as much or we wouldnít be doing half of it.
Q. Do you expect rapid prototyping to spread?
A. I think it will become an industry standard. Thatís not to say everyone will be on an even playing field. Weíre an early adaptor of rapid prototyping so I think weíre doing fairly well in this area. I think it just takes a continuous investment, making sure those tools are updated. Itís not without cost or without resources; 40 percent of the engineers we have on the [Armyís Joint Multi-Role program], the future of the company, have less than 10 years of engineering experience. To them, rapid prototyping is obvious. Itís not a leap forward; itís not something thatís a paradigm shift. Itís the only way they know. For them, things like rapid prototyping are just second nature.
Q. As a company thatís focused on a niche area, is it easier to defend R&D spending?
A. Itís never easy. You have to remember weíre part of a bigger company. Sikorsky is part of a $65 billion industrial powerhouse in United Technologies. When it comes time for us to make significant investments, weíre like everyone else in the company, we have to go and convince the corporate parent that itís the right level of investment. The fact weíre focused and do one thing well, thatís great. But our parent company does more than one thing, and theyíre the ones who have to ultimately bless our larger scale investments.
Q. Do you expect R&D to expand or contract in the short term?
A. I think it will continue to be a significant investment for us. In terms of expansion or contraction, a lot of that depends what happens in the next few years with our customer. Our plan is to stay relatively consistent with our level of development. What has changed is the nature of who we work with, using industry partnerships more effectively, like weíre doing with Boeing on Joint Multi-Role. Now itís not just about your dollars, talent and expertise. Itís being able to leverage that for the broader industry, forming a partnership and understanding that with that you not only have an efficient use of dollars but youíre not the only one betting on a big technology.
Q. Will that be a trend?
A. Absolutely. I am convinced. Clearly, thereís pressure on RDT&E budgets. I think it starts with that. The days of the government coming and fully funding your program from cradle to grave appears to be over. With that understanding comes the need for industry to step up and make investments, and thatís a tough proposition. Itís always easier to pool your investment, because, from a financial standpoint, it makes sense, and itís the old one-plus-one equals three equation. We have advancements weíre making every single day that both companies acknowledge we would not be able to do on our own.
Q. Talk about the Boeing partnership on Defiant, your JMR demonstrator.
A. Itís interesting. The scope of the partnership includes not just JMR. It includes future vertical lift, and it includes anything that could replace it. This is not a technology demonstrator partnership. Weíre in it for the long haul. This will be a 30-40 year partnership. I canít think of anything which was so integral to both companiesí core businesses for a period of 30-40 years. Itís game changing.
Q. Analysts expect market dropoff for military rotorcraft in the next decade. How do you position the company to handle that?
A. Itís very easy to take a look at US defense funding in isolation and say that it will be the bellwether of the entire industry, because the US government is the biggest helicopter operator in the world. Iím not saying itís not important or impactful, but I think youíll see increased spending on sophisticated equipment in international markets, especially emerging economies with higher growth rates, rapid expansion of their economy and an appetite to be more active in international affairs.
We [also] have an extraordinarily strong commercial business right now. Thatís one of the benefits of being diversified. If you took military OEM [original equipment manufacturer] business and that was the key determining factor of the health of our company or industry, you could paint a pretty grim picture. If you take it all in totality and you look at the next three to five years, it starts to become a pretty balanced picture.
Q. Which markets in particular?
A. First and foremost on my mind is Turkey. Theyíve been a great customer, thereís 150 Black Hawks in Turkey, and theyíre looking to buy 109 more. Thatís a program weíve been very closely involved in and are hopefully looking forward to the last stages of a binding contract here in the next several weeks. Beyond that, thereís a lot of interest in India, certainly the Middle East; we have a solid base of countries in South America from which to grow. It really is broad base, and itís global.
Q. Is it easier to partner with local firms or to go it alone?
A. We can do both. It really depends on the maturity of the aerospace industry and the desire of the country that is procuring the helicopter. There is a growing sophisticated aerospace industry outside the US. Turkey, for instance, has much more sophistication than they get credit for. So when we do countries like Turkey, industrialization is a key requirement. And itís not industrialization in the old mode of offsets where you buy 109 helicopters and I promise that my sister division will buy raw material from a copper mine, or something like that. Now itís about some technology transfer, but more importantly, allowing the countries we sell to to have greater independence in supporting the aircraft after procurement and even designing and building their own aircraft.
Aerospace is one of those very attractive sectors, because itís a great way to promote your national interests but also indirectly spur growth in STEM. I havenít talked to an international customer yet who says ĎI donít have an interest in further developing my country, I just want your helicopters.í
Q. How do you work with a customer like the Pentagon amidst all the uncertainty?
A. The first thing we do is understand that often itís not the customer that weíre talking to that is the cause of the uncertainty. Itís important for us to articulate that, and itís important for us to understand that, in many cases, the services we deal with, the program officer weíre dealing with are quite frankly in a tough environment. Itís not that they know thereís a plan and they donít want to tell us; itís that they donít know. That indecision and uncertainty, I think, pervades the entire leadership right now probably all the way up to the leadership of the country.
As an example, we were in the situation with the shutdown that we were going to lose our DCMA [Defense Contract Management Agency] quality assurance inspectors. The amount of uncertainty and consternation that causes our company, who are very reliant on DCMA to keep the assembly line moving, is incredible. We can come to a gridlock on our manufacturing floor within 24-48 hours. So the key for us is what the impact of that would likely be and then go communicate that impact to the outside world and the leadership. Our leadership, whether in the Pentagon or with elected officials, need to know the decision they are making, that whatever savings they think they are making by furloughing 45 inspectors, evaporates in 10 minutes by not having three or four thousand people be able to show up and come to work.
In the meantime, while you have the ability to manufacture, itís about executing. Now, more than ever, itís important to execute on the programs you have. This is not a good time to be behind schedule and overrun your costs. This is not the time to be a wounded program.
Q. Any long term delays from the shutdown?
A. Quite frankly weíre trying to play catch up right now which is not the most efficient way to do business. Three or four days [without DCMA inspectors], which doesnít seem like a lot, when you are a manufacturer, three or four days of disruption is significant. It takes you much longer than three to four days to recover from that. Weíll get there, though; weíre not going to miss a delivery.