Heavy-Lift Cargo Helicopters
Paris-New helicopter development programs are few and far between, and are likely to become even rarer as the exponential growth of development costs makes upgrades look ever more attractive. It also is a rare coincidence when several countries find they have a common requirement, and even rarer that they also have a common timeline for it.
When all these factors combine, they create a fertile ground for international cooperation, which if properly managed very substantially lowers the total cost of a new rotorcraft program to each participant. These preconditions now exist thanks to broadly similar military requirements, and broadly similar timelines, for heavy-lift helicopters on both sides of the Atlantic. They offer a unique opportunity for transatlantic cooperation that should not be squandered.
Cost = Square Root of X
The old rule of thumb for international programs is that when x number of countries are involved, the cost to each is equal to the square root of x. In other words, when four countries cooperate, each will pay double the cost of going it alone (or triple if there are nine partners, and so on). This--with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight--largely explains why trans-European programs such as the Tiger attack helicopter and, to a lesser degree, the NH-90 end up costing much more than initially estimated.
Why? Because each partner wants to gain new capabilities, rather than contributing what it does best. Each wants a share of research and development and production work proportional to its share of program investment and procurement. Contracts and subcontracts are awarded on the basis of nationality, not cost-effectiveness. And each wants to lead export sales in some part of the world.
Military customers also contribute to the pain: they change requirements, and insist they be integrated into the overall design. They often are not able to ensure smooth funding flow. And, finally, they insist on such a degree of customization that they end up losing whatever cost advantage they might have gained by cooperating.
Thankfully, people do learn from experience, and some of the more wasteful practices have been dropped. "Just return," under which a partner got as much financial benefit from a program as it contributed in terms of R&D funding and production orders, is well on the way out. Life-cycle costs, rather than simply R&D costs, are now the main benchmark by which a program is judged. Also, subcontracts are increasingly awarded on the basis of lowest compliant price, rather than nationality.
Many of these changes have already been incorporated in existing programs, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, and if generalized should make international cooperation as cost-effective in practice as it is in theory.
Military staffs, on the other hand, still have to undergo a similar cultural revolution as far as their operational requirements are concerned. While in an ideal world no one would suggest that soldiers should not have the weapons they want, their requests should be taken with a healthy dollop of common sense.
Some of this fixation on specs is already rearing its ugly head around the requirement for a heavy-lift helicopter.
The latest word is that the U.S. Marine Corps wants the shipboard footprint of its future CH-53K to match that of its current CH-53E. However, France and Germany, which have a requirement for a similar helicopter, want a cabin bigger than the -53K [which is to be 1 ft. (0.3 m) wider than the -53E] to accommodate a standard transport container. So, it appears, they will each develop different helicopters, while paying lip service to cooperation by looking at the possibility of sharing rotor and drive train systems. And other points of divergence are sure to appear: soldiers are only human, and they all want to have the best car on the block.
One Size Fits All?
But, surely, a ship the size of the U.S. Navy's new San Antonio-class LPD (that service's designation for an amphibious transport dock) can accommodate helicopters with a larger footprint, especially as the LPDs themselves are much larger than the Austin-class ships from which the CH-53Es now operate. And while it makes sense to design a helicopter to carry standard containers, as the French and Germans want, couldn't they look at other container sizes, even if it means carrying more of them? After all, there are several standard sizes, and this may well be a case of "one size doesn't fit all."
So, we have similar requirements and timescales. We have more modern and effective management practices. We have budgets or earmarked funding and, best of all, we have all this in a niche that represents less than 5 percent of the helicopter market. Developing one affordable helicopter for such a small market is hard enough; developing two would be throwing money out of the window.
There should only be one, common heavy-lift helicopter, and if politicians have to knock a few military heads together to achieve it, so be it. They would thus play a much more worthwhile role than they normally do in defense procurement.