Rocky flight: Sikorsky, other helicopter makers worry about future

Washington — The paragraphs were slipped into a massive defense bill by a Mississippi senator. Part assertion, part plea, they are aimed at the Pentagon, and more than anything else, they reflect the worry that Sikorsky Aircraft and other helicopter manufacturers feel about their future.

Rather than investing in new technologies and funding a new generation of rotary winged aircraft, the Pentagon is moving to upgrade existing helicopters.

And so one paragraph of the “sense of the Senate” provision in the defense bill reads:

“Helicopter program unpredictability and reduced defense procurement have a negative impact on the ability to recruit and retain a qualified and capable aerospace workforce thereby increasing risk for the helicopter industrial base’s ability to design, build, and support the next generation of manned and unmanned military helicopters.”

Citing an Aerospace Industries Association of America report, the paragraphs, inserted into the defense bill by Mississippi’s junior senator, Republican Roger Wicker, note that military aircraft manufacturing sales declined by 2.4 percent between 2011 and 2012. They also say that aviation industry employment of aerospace research and development scientists and engineers numbering 140,000 in 1996 had dropped to 40,000 in 2008.

Wicker, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was trying to help an American Eurocopter facility in Columbus, Miss. But the nation’s four other helicopter manufacturers, including Stratford-based Sikorsky, are behind the effort.

“The Senate language accurately reflects what the aerospace industry in the United States, and the rotary wing sector in particular, has been saying for some years,” said Sikorsky spokesman Frans Jurgens. “[T]hat predictable funding and well defined requirements for new, and not just existing, helicopters will spur research and development of advanced technologies and next generation helicopter designs.”

Bad news

Sikorsky has had a rash of bad news from the Pentagon lately.

The Army is thinking about scrapping its entire fleet of Bell Helicopter OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters, which serve as aerial scouts. But instead of providing an opportunity for Sikorsky’s new “Raider” copter, which the company calls “the next big thing in Army aviation,” the Army is replacing the aging Kiowa Warriors with the National Guard’s Boeing AH-64 Apaches.

“Sikorsky used its own money to develop (the Raider) technology, but there’s no new takers. That has to hurt,” said Daniel Goure, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C.-area think tank.

Goure said the “no new start” policy adopted by the Pentagon is a big worry for the helicopter industry. “There’s no new program of record for a new design.”

More problems for Sikorsky came with the Air Force’s decision last month to scrap plans to procure a new combat search-and-rescue helicopter in the near future.

“It’s an important platform with a lot of support, but it will be very difficult because of how little money there is for new starts in the coming year,” Eric Fanning, acting Air Force secretary, said at an Air Force Association breakfast last month.

Fanning spoke of the impact of the sequester, or across-the-board budget cuts, on the Pentagon’s procurement budget. Budget negotiators in the House and Senate came up with a deal on Tuesday that would eliminate the sequester for two years.

But Fanning said even if it had the money, the Pentagon is unlikely to buy new helicopters.

“I think all of the services, if given more money, would be investing it in what they’ve got, in their readiness and training, rather than starting something new,” Fanning said.

Adding to the helicopter industry’s woes is the Marine Corps’ decision to rely increasingly on the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft that can take off vertically like a helicopter, and fly like a plane that can travel long distances with heavy payloads.

New ventures

Still, Sikorsky hopes the Marine Corps will like a helicopter that’s under development, the CH-53K, which will be equipped with new engines, new composite rotor blades and a wider cabin than earlier models of the CH-53, a very large, very heavy helicopter used by the Marines.

Sikorsky is also developing an Army Joint Multi-role helicopter, and it was one of four helicopter makers to receive a $6.5 million technology investment agreement from the Army to develop a prototype of the craft.

Gordon Adams, a defense analyst with the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said the downsizing of the nation’s military forces will make it tough on helicopter manufacturers – and many other defense contractors – because procurement budgets will be cut to fund other priorities.

“The deepest cuts will be in procurement, “ he said. “(The Pentagon) will take the programs that it has and stretch them out, not create new ones.”

The provision in the defense authorization bill said, “the Department of Defense should take into consideration the health and viability of the military helicopter industrial base” when it proposes budgets for Congress to consider.

“Shortsighted budget decisions could have a negative impact on the ability to recruit and retain a qualified and capable aerospace workforce,” Wicker, the Mississippi senator, said.

Sikorsky agrees.

“The ability to attract and retain engineering talent at companies like Sikorsky depends in part on the Department of Defense’s requirement for military helicopters,” Jurgens said.

But Goure of the Lexington Institute said Wicker’s efforts to influence the Pentagon are largely meaningless, since his provision is not “a directive” and has no teeth.

”It is at least recognizing that there is a problem, even if it’s not doing anything to fix the problem,” Goure said.

According to globalfirepower.com, helicopters accounted for about 6,400 of the 18,000 or so aircraft in the U.S. military in 2011.

Goure said the number of military helicopters is likely to begin to decrease soon as older helicopters are retired, and they are not replaced by new generations of aircraft.

Congress hopes to finish work on a final defense authorization bill this week. But there’s no guarantee Wicker’s provision will be included in a final bill.

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