Is the US Military in the Twilight Years of Manned, Fixed-Wing Procurement?
While the title is admittedly something of an overstatement, it does reflect a significant reality. Last year, the Air Force trained more Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) pilots than manned aircraft pilots. In the 30 year plan for the Air Force, they call for a 10% decline in the number of manned fighters and a simultaneous quadrupling of the unmanned multi-role UAS fleet.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems have changed the way war is waged around the world. That in turn, has affected both manned fixed-wing procurement and its research and development efforts. The cost of manned systems and the development lead-time are resulting in purchases of smaller fleets and less specialized aircraft. In today’s aircraft industry the airframe or platform is becoming an afterthought – virtually a means to an end. With established DoD programs and platforms in place for at least the next five years, the aircraft industry is shifting its focus to ensure a limited, sustainable portfolio of manned aircraft for use long after they return from Southwest Asia.
Focusing on the future of manned aviation means improving upon the technologies that make these systems valuable. The systems equipment that comprises the backbone of the manned aircraft fleet is the main significant growth areas for the market over the next five years. Without subsystems, a manned aircraft is nothing more than an airframe providing limited value. This fact is increasingly being acknowledged by end users, and the industry is responding. The development of advanced sensing, navigation, data exploitation and communications technologies is at an all time high with new research and development (R&D) efforts being initiated. The need to shorten the “kill-chain” and prevent friendly-fire incidents calls for enhanced communications and day / night adverse weather sensors and weapons.
A major challenge for all U.S. Armed Forces will be to maintain current and future fleet programs. Continued growth is expected, but procurement will be challenged by the economic downturn, national debt and program delays. Keeping aging equipment in service will also continue to be a challenge for the military. Both Afghanistan and Iraq operations have presented a tremendous challenge to the military. Systems upgrades and longevity upgrades based on field experience may become the largest of the procurement revenue sources.
The individual services are significantly altering their fixed-wing procurement. The U.S. Navy has passed the Air Force as the largest procurer of fixed-wing aircraft, and is expected to be the leading spender over the next five years. They will continue purchases of EA-18 and E-2D aircraft and begin purchases of F-35 and P-8 aircraft.
USAF fixed-wing spending has declined significantly. This will continue in the near-term and reflect the curtailment of several programs. These notably include the F-22 and C-17. The only major programs currently in procurement are the F-35 and C-130. A small buy for C-27s will occur principally to support National Guard operations. On the horizon is the KC-X, once an uncontested award is made and production begins.
The Army’s fixed-wing spending is effectively limited to medium altitude ISR platforms, which are variants of the C-12 aircraft. While new surveillance packages for those aircraft will be purchased, actual airframe purchases will be few.
The Coast Guard is procuring a fleet of new surveillance aircraft. Coast Guard C-130s are part of the Navy’s buys. The Coast Guard then missionizes them for surveillance tasks. The Coast Guard is also buying HC-144 aircraft at 1-3 per year for the next several years.
The global war on terrorism will continue driving the fixed-wing market, especially in Afghanistan. Higher usage of ISR platforms, extreme operational conditions, and an aging fleet will be major drivers for the next five years. Program initiatives such as the U.S. Army’s Guard Rail program, Air Force Project Liberty Program and the Navy’s P-8A Poseidon will continue pushing the market forward between now and 2015.
Secretary Gates’ adjustment of the procurement focus to reflect more of “what we are doing now” and less of “what we need in the future” is significantly changing the procurement landscape. This is the most important trend in the past several years. The air superiority fighter as exemplified in the F-22 is viewed as unnecessary in the near term. Multi-role aircraft and aircraft with enhanced capabilities have a clear priority. Strike requirements were part of the decision criteria for the cancellation of the F-22 program in favor of increased production of the F-35.
There are fewer of these large procurement programs (F-35 and KC-X), but these will be the fleet mainstays, with other, more specialized aircraft purchased in very small numbers. Tactical aircraft (Fighter/Attack) remain the largest spending area. This includes the F/A-18, F-35 and modifications/MRO for the legacy fighters. Tactical aircraft spending will decline during the period and will decline more significantly in the 5-10 year period. ISR platforms have now assumed the second highest spending and include both high and medium altitude platforms. ISR platforms will continue to grow robustly. Aside from limited spending on a handful of COTS aircraft, cargo aircraft spending is effectively limited to the C-130, including its many specialized versions. Cargo aircraft spending will continue to decline, except for the C-130, until the KC-X contract is finally awarded. Current trainer spending reflects the last few deliveries of T-45 and T-6 aircraft. There are no major new trainer contracts during the next five years. Out of the period, perhaps the T-38’s replacement will be considered. Bomber spending will be sustaining / modification funds and minimal R&D funding.
The 2011 budget will drive $26.4B in fixed-wing contracts. Most of that spending will be for new aircraft and engines, but support for the legacy aircraft will be big business. Spending for these aircraft is expected to decline through 2015 with a possible leveling starting in 2016. For the immediately foreseeable future the F-35 and C-130 will be the key programs. The KC-X should start significant production near the end of the five-year period. So, while it isn’t the twilight years, yet, the market is evolving fast.
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