“Switching cost” is a term businesses use to better understand the affordability and true customer cost of changing, or switching, from one system or product to another. It is easy to identify the cost of the product itself, but the total cost comes in many other forms. For the United States Military, this means operations, training, maintenance, organizational structure and tactics and strategy.
Currently, the U.S. Army is undergoing a modernization effort after 40 years of operating and upgrading equipment designed during the Vietnam War-era, fielded in the early 1980s and served the Army from the Cold War through operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As platforms are developed through this new modernization effort, the Army must ascertain the switching costs to ensure affordability and operational congruency and reduce risk.
The Army’s Choice
One of the more interesting modernization efforts underway is the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) program. The Army must choose between aircraft developed by the Lockheed Martin Sikorsky-Boeing Team, also known as Team DEFIANT, and Bell Textron to produce and deliver an aircraft that will replace the UH-60 BLACK HAWK helicopter. Team DEFIANT’s offering, DEFIANT X®, is a super-maneuverable coaxial helicopter that flies at twice the speed and range of a BLACK HAWK with a 25 percent greater sling load capacity. These capabilities not only save the Army money, but allow them to reallocate other aircraft to perform essential missions. Bell is offering an evolved tilt-rotor, a fast aircraft that also has the ability to hover.
One of the challenges before the Army is comparing the switching costs of two technologically innovative designs and determining which is best suited for the long-range assault mission. During the competition to replace the venerable UH-1 Huey in the 1970s, the Army was able to do a pairwise comparison of two helicopters with similar characteristics. The FLRAA competition is vastly different as the Army must compare and contrast a coaxial helicopter with a tilt-rotor aircraft. It is akin to comparing a piano with an accordion – both are musical instruments and have keyboards, but the similarities end there. The technological brilliance of both aircraft offerings aside, the question is: what does the Army need FLRAA to do, and what are the impacts across the full range of switching costs? Simply stated, the Army’s ultimate requirement is for a long-range assault aircraft – the namesake of the program.
The “Base” of the Industrial Base
The 101st Airborne Division Gold Book is unironically considered the “gold” standard in Air Assault doctrine. This doctrine is based on the unique capability a helicopter brings – and no two companies know helicopters better than Lockheed Martin Sikorsky and Boeing. With active production lines currently delivering helicopters for the Army including the UH-60 BLACK HAWK, AH-64 Apache and CH-47 Chinook – iconic aircraft representing 100% of Army Aviation’s combat rotorcraft – Sikorsky and Boeing are the Army Aviation’s industrial base and trusted 40-year partners. This position gives Team DEFIANT a unique understanding of the Army and its assault mission. That is why Team DEFIANT designed DEFIANT X to support the Army’s total mission and provide Soldiers with transformational leap ahead capabilities, while minimizing all switching costs.
Continuity Reduces Risk
Sikorsky and Boeing are also intimately familiar with the way the Army operates, trains and maintains helicopters – both at the Army’s flight school and within operational units. Incorporating DEFIANT X, a coaxial helicopter, is a natural evolution of current helicopter training and curriculum. DEFIANT X will leverage the Army’s world class programs in place today, and operational pilots and maintainers will easily transition to DEFIANT X because their experience is flying and maintaining helicopters. Bottom line, with DEFIANT X, Army Aviation will continue to do what it does best – fly, train and maintain helicopters.
The Right Fit is Crucial
Notably, DEFIANT X fits into the same landing zone and footprint as a BLACK HAWK – this was no accident, but rather a very important design consideration. Anywhere you can land, park or maintain a BLACK HAWK, you can do the same with DEFIANT X. This commonality minimizes the switching cost both in garrison and in the field. Hangars, parking pads and tie-down points on today’s Army airfields are based on the size of the BLACK HAWK. Imagine buying a new car and then realizing the driveway and garage need to be expanded. That is a real switching cost.
Another critical capability DEFIANT X brings is the ability to mass combat power into a landing zone – this is the key distinction helicopters bring above all other means of insertion, because only helicopters precisely mass combat power on the objective, also known as the “X.” The Gold Book outlines the tactics, techniques and procedures the Army employs for aircraft in support of the battle plan. The size and required aircraft separation of a tilt rotor limits the number of aircraft in a landing zone, which greatly limits combat power. That is an unacceptable switching cost. DEFIANT X’s ability to land more aircraft on the “X”, provides flexibility and delivers more combat power, to more places, providing the ground commander more options.
Challenges Ahead in the Modern Battlespace
Focusing on the air-assault mission in the near-peer environment is critical as the Army looks to modernize its assault aircraft fleet for 2030 and beyond. The Army’s emerging theatre, INDOPACOM, will require aircraft to island hop across broad distances, fly low and fast to mask visual and radar signature, over water and land. But the missions that lie in front of the Army are not a race – there is no trophy for getting to the objective- the objective is where the battle begins. FLRAA must be prepared to support Soldiers with sling loads, MEDEVAC, resupply and artillery raids in order to survive and complete the mission. This is where the capability of a helicopter outperforms other technologically capable aircraft. Air assault missions are not air transport missions. The risk of changing doctrine based on reduced operational flexibility can result in even less capability than the Army has today – a significant cost of switching!
In sum, the Army must consider total switching costs as it considers which aircraft to field for FLRAA because the choice will impact affordability and operations in real and meaningful ways that are not quickly or easily changed. When the Army fields FLRAA, it will also maintain and modernize its Enduring Fleet, including BLACK HAWKS, Apaches and Chinooks, all of which are helicopters. Including DEFIANT X in the fleet maintains congruency in everything the Army does today and minimizes switching costs while providing the transformational capability required to fight and win in INDOPACOM, or any theater, whenever the Army is called upon.
Edward Fortunato has 14 years of experience as an aerospace industry executive and is currently a vice president at Lockheed Martin. He’s a retired Army officer and BLACK HAWK pilot.