In the final hours of its current session, Congress is going to try to approve the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). There are a number of potential stumbling blocks that could prevent the bill from being passed such as the size of the pay raise for the military and what happens to Guantanamo detainees.
One small piece of the Senate version of the NDAA likely to be overlooked by most readers of the legislation is rather important. It involves a sense of the Senate statement regarding the parlous state of the U.S. helicopter industrial base. According to the Senate, sales of military aircraft, including helicopters and the size of the workforce in this vital area are both declining. There are now only five corporations that manufacture all U.S. military helicopters. The Senate goes on to observe that “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.”
The situation is actually even worse than it was at the time this language was written. The Army is reported to be considering eliminating its entire fleet of scout helicopters, the Kiowa Warriors, and employing excess Apache attack helicopters, possibly with additional sensing capabilities, instead. If it makes this decision, the Army would most likely also cancel its plans to develop and procure a new armed aerial scout helicopter. The Air Force may cancel its procurement of a new combat search and rescue helicopter. Even though there is only a single bidder for this program, it would mean that the Air Force would procure 100 fewer platforms, a serious loss of business for the helicopter industrial base. The Air Force may also cancel its plans to acquire the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform, a new utility transport helicopter to provide transportation and surveillance in support of the ICBM force.
Not only are procurement programs for helicopters being cut back or cancelled outright, but there is very little in the way of resources being devoted to advancing the state of the art in rotary lift. The Army has a Joint Multi-Role (JMR) program to advance the state of the art in medium lift utility helicopters and leading, allegedly, to a new procurement program to replace the Black Hawk fleet. All the major U.S. helicopter manufacturers are involved. Aside from the JMR, some limited modernization efforts and a few interesting self-financed development programs by the companies themselves, there is not much going on in this area.
The sense of the Senate is that because armed, cargo, and utility helicopters are instrumental to the Department of Defense’s ability to execute the President’s National Security Strategy, the Department of Defense (DoD) should take into consideration the health and viability of the military helicopter industrial base in its analysis and decision making when building its annual research, development, and acquisition budget request. In addition, DoD and Congress should endeavor to maintain budget and program predictability in order to attract and retain a skilled workforce to ensure the technological capabilities required to sustain the preeminence of the United States military helicopter fleets.
Unfortunately, this is only a sense of the Senate statement. It does not direct DoD to undertake any programs nor does it bar the Pentagon from cancelling planned procurements. It does not even order DoD to take the necessary actions to protect the helicopter industrial base. But it is important as a warning of what may happen to a critical part of the overall U.S. defense industrial base.