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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Eurowatch: The Wheel Turns

Giovanni de Briganti

PARIS — TODAY’S HELICOPTER industry is vastly different from what it was 40 years ago, when Rotor & Wing first began publishing.

Back then, it was largely dominated by the United States. Europe’s fledgling manufacturers had only recently got their start, thanks to production licenses bought mainly from Bell Helicopter and Sikorsky Aircraft. Thus, in the 1960s, almost all of the helicopters built and operated in what was then known as the Free World were direct or indirect U.S. designs.

Eurocopter’s two predecessor companies, France’s Aerospatiale and Germany’s Messerschmitt-Boelkow-Blohm, soon branched out into designs of their own. Aerospatiale designed the Alouette 2, the world’s first turbine helicopter, then the large, three-engine Super Frelon. MBB flew the world’s first light, twin-turbine, the BO105, in 1967.

Also in 1967, France and the United Kingdom kick-started their industry by jointly launching the Gazelle, Lynx, and Puma military programs, which formed the basis for their growth, their technological development, and, to some extent, part of their current product lines.

Forty years on, the industry has turned almost full circle. Today, European-built helicopters dominate the world market, and Europe’s two remaining manufacturers, AgustaWestland and Eurocopter, have largely broken the U.S. hold on most market segments. U.S. industry now only dominates a single segment — heavy lift, with the Sikorsky CH-53 and Boeing CH-47.

Even the U.S. military — long a captive market for U.S. industry — are buying European. The original European success, Aerospatiale’s sale of Dauphin twins (HH-65s) to the U.S. Coast Guard, has more recently been followed by the sale of the AgustaWestland AW101 (formerly EH101) for the U.S. presidential helicopter fleet (designated VH-71), albeit under the prime contractorship of Lockheed Martin. For its Light Utility Helicopter, the UH-72A, the U.S. Army selected Eurocopter’s EC145.

What caused this remarkable turn-around? In a nutshell, short-term and misguided policy decisions by successive U.S. governments, and U.S. manufacturers’ unwillingness to move beyond their financial comfort zones.

Over the past 40 years, for example, the United States has developed only two military utility helicopters, the UH-1 and the UH-60, preferring each time to tweak and upgrade existing designs instead of pursuing new technologies. And, contrary to expectations, this didn’t save much money, as witnessed by how the Pentagon is paying through the nose for the latest upgrades to the UH-1 (the U.S. Marine Corps’ UH-1Y) and UH-60 (the U.S. Army’s UH-60M).

Financially, this has not harmed U.S. manufacturers, who were content with the very profitable business of selling to their domestic customers. However, they neglected R&D investments, and gradually lost ground to new technologies developed in Europe.

In the meantime, and in the same market segment, Europe successively designed and manufactured the Puma, the Cougar, the NH90 and the AW139. Each of these helicopters brought technological innovations, better performance and lower direct operating costs, which explains why Europe now rules the world market for utility helicopters.

At fault is the U.S. habit of squeezing the very last drop of life from existing products, hoping to catch up through very expensive, "leap-frog" programs launched every once in a while. But this rarely works, as demonstrated by the combat helicopter segment.

U.S. forces are now waiting for delivery of the ultimate upgrades of 1960s (AH-1) and 1970s (Boeing AH-64) helicopters, after having had to drop innovative designs (the Cheyenne and Comanche) because of overly ambitious goals combined with excessive development costs.

And it is by no means certain that the current "quantum leap," from the Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight to the Bell/Boeing V-22 tilt-rotor, will pan out better than preceding efforts.

Even worse, there are no new utility or combat helicopters in the Pentagon’s pipeline, and there won’t be for another decade or two. In fact, apart from the CH-47F and the CH-53K, there are no new helicopters at all.

The danger for U.S. industry’s long-term future is that it will be forced out of the international market by the lack of new products. The risk for Europe is that, if it fails to maintain a high level of R&D spending, it will lose its head start as emerging manufacturers, whose lower production costs are backed up by ambitious national spending plans, progress from license production to design.

In the past 40 years, the helicopter industry’s center of gravity has moved eastwards from America to Europe. Unless care is taken, it might well keep migrating east, and end up somewhere on the Pacific Rim 40 years from now.

R&W might have to stop publishing in English, and instead shift to Sanskrit, Mandarin, and Korean editions. Where would we be then?

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