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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

‘Fear and Loathing’…Reversed

By Andrew Drwiega

Igor Sikorsky aboard an early version of his VS-300. Photo courtesy of Sikorsky
Does the truth matter in defense reporting – or does it get in the way of a good story? While most observers would immediately think of an eager journalist trying to file a story, it can equally be attributed to the ‘good news’ centric defense establishment.

The fear factor within the ranks of the United Kingdom’s armed forces was raised another notch recently. What could have been the cause? A new terrorist tactic perhaps, or maybe a weapon to which there is no answer? Well, answers do have something to do with it; talking to journalists to be precise.

The Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) new rules (restrictions) on service personnel having dialogue with the independent media are beginning to take the shape of those usually issued with a totalitarian state, rather than one founded on the principles of democracy.

The independent media’s relationship with the armed forces, already shackled due to prior restrictions, have come under yet another heavy attack, this time with the express instruction that military personnel providing anything from regular information to expressing an opinion must have the comments cleared in advance. Everything. Unavoidable contact, perhaps meeting a journalist by chance in the street or at a function, must be immediately reported.

This craving for a sanitized view of the military, giving the politically correct message on every aspect of defense, aims to limit the flow of information and in doing so dissuade the democratic discussion of issues or failures within defense.

What we are seeing is an attack on basic journalism that goes back to Sir William Howard Russell’s exposure of the horrors of the Crimean War while writing for the Times. Back then, the both public and the military leadership were horrified, but for very different reasons! Casualties were dying due to insufficient care made worse by official indifference to the plight of the wounded.

Over the years, we have seen the creep and spread of MoD contracted and controlled communicators who run government controlled news channels, from forces broadcasting with its public availability through satellite providers, to websites, blogs, photographs and printed magazines. The growth in the numbers of people doing this has been rapid. All are on ‘official’ message and are hardly likely to ‘whistle-blow’ on any issue, even one that adversely affects our own soldiers.

The public has a right to know the successes and failures of its armed forces. Muzzling the media is divisive and unhealthy. After all, it’s public money and they are our armed forces.

How Times Have Changed

Seventy-five years ago on September 14, 1939, 50-year-old Igor Sikorsky, flying with overcoat and trademark fedora hat, lifted his experimental helicopter VS-300 off the ground and hovered the machine under his control.

Such an event stands as a landmark in the history of man’s attempt to join the birds soaring in the sky. Within thirty years of that event came an even more remarkable achievement, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took ‘one small step…one giant leap’ for mankind by leaving this planet and walking on the Moon (July 20, 1969).

Thirty years ago, the U.S. military was flying a wide range of different helicopters including the Sikorsky S-61, SH-60, UH-60, CH-53 (1966), UH-60; Boeing’s Chinook CH-47; MH-6, AH-64 and Bell’s Kiowa Warrior OH-58 and UH-1.

Thirty years later the military is still flying all of the above, albeit in a variety of upgrades and modifications, although the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior is finally bowing out this year. And although the V-22 is not on the list, as the first Osprey flew in 1989, the history of Bell’s XV-3 goes back to the 1950s.

So what happened to the rush of innovation? Quite simply, as the build quality got better and systems became the focus, there was less need to pour money into new ideas. Concepts have come and gone but manufacturing is big business and the need to break out of the helicopter’s performance envelope was not strong enough to warrant big business taking a risk on research and development when it didn’t need to.

Today, there is an impetus to move vertical lift into a new regime through programs such as Future Vertical Lift. It is highly unlikely one single person will emerge as the driving force behind the next milestone in flight as Igor Sikorsky did at Vought-Sikorsky in the late 1930s. Yes he had a team to work with, but nothing like the institutionalized research and development that we see today. It is teams of people that now explore and develop, hardly individuals. The needs and complexity of the Future Vertical Lift program and DARPA’s VTOL X-Plane demand it.

But during a recent visit to Igor Sikosky’s modest office in his company’s main building in Stratford, Conn., it was pleasing to see that same fedora resting on a desk, seemingly awaiting his return.


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