WASHINGTON — After decades of trying to break into the U.S. military aircraft market, Airbus is shifting course with a new strategy that prioritizes selling off-the-shelf sensors, data, space and intelligence capabilities that have been customized for U.S. government buyers.
During a Wednesday discussion with reporters about the new direction for the business, Chris Emerson, the new chief executive of the Airbus U.S. Space and Defense division and formerly the president of Airbus Helicopters, said he wanted to move the company’s focus in the United States away from the major fixed-wing platforms that are the company’s bread and butter in Europe.
Instead, he hopes to expand the company’s presence in the growing space and intelligence markets, particularly with low-cost satellites like those made by its joint venture One Web, geospatial intelligence and imaging, and space-based sensors.
“We know the Air Force needs an A400M, but I can spend 10 years trying to convince the Air Force and all the politicians that they should buy an A400M. And ultimately they will buy C-130s,” Emerson said.
“So let me focus this energy, this great leadership team, on achieving something that is tangible today that the customer really needs. Yes, it’s not traditional for Airbus, but it will bring the value and we’ll have a better foundation if one day my successor says, ‘You know, I want to be a big platform competitor.’ At least we’d have built up trust and proven that we could really meet the requirements that are demanded of it.”
Although Airbus is a juggernaut in the international military and commercial aerospace market, it has always struggled to find its place among the U.S. defense prime contractors as major aircraft manufacturers. It famously lost the KC-X contract to Boeing in 2011 after a bloody and prolonged battle. Since then, the company’s biggest procurement victory has been continued sales of its UH-72A Lakota helicopter to the Army.
“I remember I spent eight years thinking we could bring real value on air-to-air refueling for the Air Force. But I spent eight years, and I’m frustrated because I look at it and we didn’t succeed,” Emerson said. “I’ve asked the team, ‘Let’s find a roadmap where we can actually make a mark with the customers.’ And that means, I’m not going to go look at competing with Boeing and the Lockheeds and Northrop, but I’m going to look at other areas.”
The U.S. customer is increasingly making investments into technologies that can augment or accelerate decision-making, he said.
“That’s where we start to look everything beyond an air breathing platform. We started to look at the data, the intelligence, that they need,” he said. “It could be intelligence that is geospatial-related, either Earth observation, or electro-optical, or synthetic aperture radar, or a blend that we’re pulling in multi-source information.”
Airbus already develops those types of capabilities in its commercial air and space businesses, and could quickly adapt them to U.S. demands, he said.
When there are opportunities to offer Airbus aircraft to the U.S. military, the strategy will be to partner with American primes, Emerson said. For instance, last year Airbus and Lockheed signed a memorandum of understanding to market aerial refueling services to the U.S. Air Force using the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport.
Asked on Wednesday whether the two companies planned to compete for tanker leasing opportunities currently being considered by the Air Force, Emerson said Lockheed takes the lead on interactions with the U.S. military on aerial refueling.
He added that UH-72s will continue to be manufactured alongside Airbus’s commercial H125 helicopter in Columbus, Miss., but modifications, support and contracting will be performed by the Airbus U.S. Space and Defense.
In addition to naming Emerson as head of the company’s U.S. defense and space business, Airbus also appointed a five-person board of directors — which includes former National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency director Letitia Long and William Shelton, a retired Air Force four-star and former head of Air Force Space Command — aimed at deepening ties with the U.S. military, space and intelligence agencies. It also named a seven-person team of advisers made up of former national security officials.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.