Helicopter program unpredictability and reduced defense procurement have a negative impact on the ability to recruit and retain a qualified and capable aerospace workforce, thereby increasing risk for the helicopter industrial base’s ability to design, build, and support the next generation of manned and unmanned military helicopters.
Here in the US, that was the ‘sense of the Senate’, as expressed in its version of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. Dan Gouré at the Lexington Institute contributed a whole essay in early December on the helicopter industrial base, largely agreeing with the premise, but bemoaning the lack of action. What’s less obvious is how this compares to the situation elsewhere in the world, and whether that even matters.
In the US five companies can plausibly bid for military business with machines built domestically: Bell, Boeing, Sikorsky, Airbus Helicopters (until a few days ago called Eurocopter), and MD Helicopters. Across Europe, there are basically two helicopter manufacturers building for military customers: AgustaWestland and the aforementioned Airbus. Is either clearly ahead of the mostly American firms? Not obviously so.
But even if either were, consider how firmly Airbus Helicopters is ensconced in the US—in business here since 1969—and how AgustaWestland has been cooperating with Bell since 1952. Can anyone claim that those firms’ technologies and products would not be available to the US armed forces when needed? The minor instances in which allies have held up military technologies have been rare, and more serious future occurrences are hardly conceivable.
One could fret that Russian Helicopters or Changhe or Harbin were doing things that the American firms weren’t, but commercial intelligence widely suggests otherwise. While I’m sure that those companies are building some fine machines, they’re not exactly outselling Bell and Eurocopter around the world.
And when the Chinese or the Russians do get access to better technology, are the results all that pernicious? As Marty Bollinger of Booz & Company has pointed out, Airbus Helicopters has supplied the technology and manufacturing know-how for both the US Army’s UH-72 Lakota and the Chinese Z-9 utility helicopters. The company has been in the US since 1969, and it granted its first Chinese manufacturing license in 1980. So if this were actually a problem, it would have been so for a long time. But the situation is really akin to potential enemies having comparable technology in small arms, artillery, and fixed-wing transport aircraft. Many do, but these are globally available technologies that will not by themselves prove decisive in war.
The international deals also show how many rotorcraft technologies are of commercial provenance, and almost all have commercial applications. So it’s hard to imagine the industry disappearing in the short run if the US military doesn’t supply enough development funding.
Rather than panic, it’s appropriate to pause and consider that the United States is the country with the largest and most diverse rotorcraft industry in the world. That is not likely to change, even if the military side of the business suffers from lower funding in the coming years.
James Hasik is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.