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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Paris Wanes in the Rain

Commentary by Andrew Drwiega

This year’s Paris Air Show was a washout in my more ways than just the weather, the partial rail-strike which made the daily commute from central Paris more of a misery than it already is, and the extortionate price of hotel rooms. In the summer of 2011 we experienced real signs of the migration of power to the east, especially in military helicopter terms. We are in strange times. The slashing of defense budgets among western countries has meant that there are few new orders to talk about here, or even helicopter platforms to ‘talk up’ as part of the manufacturers overall marketing campaigns.

OEMs aren’t willing (or allowed) to talk about orders from the only people west of the subcontinent still with pots of money to spend. They are the Arab nations of the Gulf States and Middle East. None of the companies doing business in this market wants to link defense procurement contracts with any nation experiencing (or on the verge of experiencing—whether they like it or not) a New Dawn. Indeed, the much talked about refocusing of the defense market on Homeland Security, border and internal security (keeping a close watch on one’s own citizens as well as those trying to move illegally across the borders) is good on the best markets for business in these hard times. For sensor companies such as FLIR and L-3 Wescam there have been few better times, as their products are not only sought for aerial platforms, but also by those on land and in the maritime environment.

Among helicopter CEOs, I talked to Eurocopter’s Lutz Bertling, engaging as ever over a private lunch during the show, and Sikorsky’s Jeff Pino during a pre-show one-on-one at La Scribe, his central Paris hotel (both conversations will appear in more detail in the August issue of Rotor & Wing). Bertling was obviously pleased that the company’s new X³ hybrid helicopter performed the closest thing to an aerobatic display with French flair and German efficiency. Being a prototype of course it is not permitted to perform aerobatics—but someone clearly should have told the pilot for the near stall-turns and wing-overs that were performed always managed to stop the crowd.

On the negative side, despite assurances that all was well, talk of the failure of the NH-90 to win the Australian Air 9000, Phase 8 contract for the Australian Navy’s maritime helicopter caused some discomfort. The recent Swedish decision to buy 15 UH-60M Black Hawks for combat search and rescue (CSAR) use in Afghanistan—to fill a gap until the delayed NH-90s are ready as well as talk about the German Army’s dissatisfaction—is rapidly moving the NH-90 from the role of hero to villain. Its once-lauded 23 varieties have almost turned into as many millstones, one by one. Its naval nemesis (designate) is emerging as Sikorsky’s SH-60R (Romeo), its vanquisher 'down under.’ Even Bertling acknowledged it obliquely saying that the choice was a "safe option"—something many governments (increasingly led by the Americans now), are turning their collective gaze toward.

Sikorsky’s Pino is in the position of strength across the UH-60 fleet. In addition to the U.S. Navy’s successful deployment of some 100 Romeo and 200 Sierra Seahawks, the U.S. Army commitment to the UH-60M means guaranteed profit for years to come. The production of the S-70i Black Hawk (light) also looks to be a good move for future international sales. Despite positive words, Sikorsky’s Achilles’ heel remains its new CH-53K, now at least three years late on its original delivery date. It will be interesting to see how it competes for market share against wherever the Boeing/Eurocopter discussions on heavy lift are going, not to mention competition from the fixed-wing community and what they might develop. What is undeniable is that Sikorsky’s X2 and S-97 prototyping will project the company’s business forward, although how far is a genuine question. Eurocopter’s Bertling, while applauding Sikorsky’s innovation, has his doubts about how large this co-axial technology can be scaled. But that argument would also apply to the X³. What both of them are doing is pushing the boundaries—which should end up being in everyone’s interest.

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