As America winds down from its wars, once robust spending on a range of core military systems such as armored vehicles and unmanned aircraft has sharply dropped, especially on helicopters.
An analysis of the Pentagon’s five-year spending plans by Defense News — in partnership with data analysis firm VisualDoD — has found that spending on the Defense Department’s top helicopter programs is dropping at 14 percent per year and 45 percent over the multiyear plan.
So if you’re a helicopter company, you can look forward to some upgrade and support work.
The big contract to develop a replacement for a series of existing helicopters, from the ubiquitous H-60 Black Hawk to the heavy-lift CH-47 Chinook, is the Joint Multi-Role Future Vertical Lift program. But repeated delays mean that, under current plans, a new helicopter won’t enter widespread service until the 2030s. For a company, that’s 15 years and 60 quarterly earnings calls away.
Despite the gap, the leading US military helicopter suppliers — Bell, Boeing, Sikorsky and Europe’s Airbus — have all invested many millions of their own dollars to develop and build prototypes to test new technologies.
That’s advanced the state of the helicopter art, but companies — to date, at least — make money on production. So such a prolonged gap is problematic.
The good news is that the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the US Army will invest about $130 million through 2018 in new helicopter technologies.
The effort will help define what future military helicopters should look like, and who will be able to build them.
It’s important to seed money that, when planted in austerity, should produce results. It’s a good model that must be applied to other fields affected by declining funding, including armored vehicles that benefited from wartime spending but will be hurt in post-conflict funding doldrums.
The Pentagon must adopt a sound long-range industrial strategy that doesn’t blindly subsidize its armor and helicopter makers, but sustains them wisely to ensure that it has competitive options.