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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

With Defense Cuts Expected, Are Military Helicopter Programs Safe?

With the continued need for wartime lift, funding for existing military and paramilitary rotorcraft programs is relatively assured, according to military experts. But what about funding for future programs?

By Robert Moorman

Makers of military rotorcraft are understandably nervous these days with the real possibility of up to $700 billion in defense-related cuts between now and 2023. Add in the recent credit default showdown and trillions in anticipated budget cuts from the so-called Congressional “super committee,” and the uncertainty increases. But the anxiety could be unnecessary, according to several industry experts.

“Rotorcraft programs are probably in better shape than almost any other category of combat systems in the current fiscal environment,” says Loren Thompson, chief operating officer for the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank. He says the programs are being funded “robustly” with a clear understanding of the “utility that helicopters bring to current war fighting.”

Thompson is not alone in his positive assessment of helicopter programs within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). While the U.S. government’s military spending as part of NATO is expected to decline to around 39 percent by 2015 according to a Council on Foreign Relations survey, DoD spending on military rotorcraft programs is not expected to drop appreciably because of the ongoing need for vertical lift and to replace equipment lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“It is all about maintaining force mobility and replacing what was worn out,” says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group. It is also about ensuring that helicopters remain an integral part of all branches of the U.S. military, which has three main roles—war fighting, nation building and counterinsurgency.

“Helicopters are at the center of all three,” Aboulafia says. “They have strategic relevance.”
Meaning, there is an ongoing need for numerous production rotorcraft, including the Boeing AH-64 Apache, Sikorsky UH60M Black Hawk, Boeing CH-47F/G Chinook, Bell Boeing V-22 and Bell UH-1Y Super Huey, which is replacing the Marines aging fleet of UH-1Ns.

Funding for the Apache and Chinook programs “will likely be safe from budget cuts, with some tweaking at the edges regarding yearly purchases,” says Ron Jaworowski, senior aerospace analysts with Forecast International. “The same is true with the Sikorsky Black Hawk UH-60Ms.” The U.S. Army is looking to buy hundreds of UH-60Ms over the next several years.
Another reason why rotorcraft programs appear Teflon-protected can be explained by examining the type of aircraft DoD procures. Many of the newer models are, in fact, approved derivatives or new builds of older aircraft. The UH-60M, which was a refurbishment program initially, is now a new Black Hawk, while the CH-47F is a new Chinook.

Look for the full version of this story in the September 2011 edition of Rotor & Wing.

Related:
Rotor & Wing's Military Insider

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