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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Heard in the Hallways: Is the C.G. Shifting for Rotorcraft R&D in the U.S.?

That was a question on the minds of U.S. attendees at last month’s American Helicopter Society International annual gathering in Montreal.

What provoked the question? The U.S. Navy’s launch of a rotorcraft center of excellence, based at NAS Patuxent River, Md. It is headed by the Naval Air Systems’ Douglas Isleib (see the VH-71 item), who is one of just two full-time employees assigned to it. He billed the role of the center, called for by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) panel recommendations for streamlining U.S. defense operations, as identifying common requirements for rotorcraft systems, soup to nuts, and coordinating efforts to satisfy them. He added that there is no reason that its efforts should not cover the needs and efforts of services other than the Navy and Marine Corps.

But others see the new center as a bid for control of military rotorcraft R&D funding. The former Marine deputy commandant for aviation, Gen. Michael Hough, for instance, said at AHS in Montreal that the center should take the lead in securing and steering science and technology funding for rotorcraft efforts. While the BRAC also called for establishing a rotorcraft center of excellence under the Army at Fort Rucker, Ala., Hough said "you don’t need two."

The move has some in Army aviation worried that the center of gravity for U.S. rotorcraft research could shift to the Navy. Several factors feed that concern.

Top advocates of Army aviation are retiring, among them Gen. Richard Cody (Army vice chief of staff), Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt (director of aviation on the Army staff), Brig. Gen. Virgil Packett (commander of Fort Rucker and the Aviation Warfighting Center there) and Paul Bogosian (program executive for Army aviation). Add to that the fact that the Army has been starving rotorcraft research. Last year, for example, it went along with NASA’s move to cut from three to two the number of university R&D centers they fund.

That may not have been a wise move. The losing school was the University of Maryland. The leader of the majority Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives is Steny Hoyer. A key funder of research efforts in the Senate for years has been Barbara Mikulski. Both Hoyer and Mikulski are from Maryland, and both have voiced support for the Navy center.

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