By By Andrew Drwiega | January 1, 2013
In kicking-off this first issue of 2013 in a change to the usual format of this column I now intend to devote it a selection of smaller items that may be pressing, current, historic or that just take my interest—as long as they all have a bearing on military rotorcraft and the people who use them:
[In front of a toy store window]
Bob Cratchit: Well, my loves, which one do you like best, eh?
Kathy Cratchit: I like the dolly in the corner.
Tiny Tim: I like all of them.
Bob Cratchit: Good boy? And why not one in particular?
Tiny Tim: Well… you said I can’t have none of them, so I might as well like them all. (With apologies to Scrooge)
So what did Santa have in his sack for the boys and girls who defend the United States? Well, at time of writing in mid-December he was actually looking to cross stuff off their lists and give them less. The prospect of sequestration was due to come into effect on Jan. 2, 2013. But before Christmas it was in the minds of those in the DoD more than yuletide merriment. And they weren’t at all pleased it had come to this.
In a DoD statement issued in early December, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said internal planning for sequestration had begun in cooperation with OMB. He very much hoped that it would not result in the DoD going “off a fiscal cliff.” However his self-evident contempt for the situation burst through: “If this is triggered, even in light of this absurd mechanism that was created to avoid absurdities, our intent is to not implement sequestration in an absurd way … inside DoD.” Had he added the phrase “bah humbug” (aka “nonsense” or “gibberish”), his Christmas message would have been seasonally complete.
In September 2012 the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced a possible military sale of eight Boeing AH-64Es to Indonesia. This is the aircraft currently being fielded by the U.S. Army to replace its own old AH-64Ds of Block I and Block II vintage.
While the U.S. defense industry is scouring the world for orders of any size to hopefully make up the shortfall, the political scene is also changing and countries that previously may have been blocked or restricted from purchasing higher levels of defense technology are now openly courted for business. The Indonesian and Iranian presidents met in November with both agreeing that the solution to the Syrian conflict must lie within the country (although Iran is believed to be supplying weapons to the Syrian regime through Iraq). However, in the wider strategic picture Indonesia is also one of the countries that is being geographically challenged by China’s territorial claims, specifically in the South China Sea (together with its regional neighbors including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines), so the U.S. senses the opportunity to support those who could help to buffer China’s regional ambitions. A further positive influence on U.S. policy could be linked to President Obama spending four years of his childhood in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. Obama has encouraged good relations between the U.S. and Indonesia, which is in the process of modernizing since the lifting of a six-year arms embargo in 2005 (for human rights abuses in East Timor).
The aviation industry needs to establish a resolution to improve on the delivery of aircraft to the end users. Although this is not news, there needs to be a collective drive to instill this as a top priority. The completion of the Sikorsky CH-53K ground test vehicle is a landmark event but the wider picture of the length of the program schedule to provide replacement helicopter to the USMC shows a timeline from “soup to nuts” which stretches over 15 years, and that is just to reach the full rate production decision.
The GAO Assessment of Major Weapons in March 2012 showed the program start point as November 2003 with the full rate production decision not due until May 2019 (initially it was September 2015). With 200 aircraft currently on order (raised from 156 in 2008), prior to any budget cuts or even the impact of sequestration in early 2013, the final aircraft will be delivered to the user around 20 years after the need was formalized. Sikorsky will naturally argue that the latest variant is a new helicopter in that it can lift more, much more at 27,000 lbs over 110 miles, than the CH-53E Sea Stallion that is replacing. But USMC no doubt bought into the CH-53K proposal thinking that it was a relatively low-risk strategy. Sikorsky sold it no doubt on the basis that they had decades of experience in manufacturing the type. Actually the fledgling aircraft, YCH-53A, first took to the skies on Oct. 14, 1964. With a constant commitment to the type and all the subsequent models since, it is concerning that either Sikorsky’s development were either too ambitious when conceived, or that the Marine acquisition requirements had some bearing on the schedule delays. Either way, lengthy acquisition programs must be shortened for the industry to improve its credibility as the second decade of the 21st century marches on.