When I was a Navy helicopter pilot all too many years ago, the only “real” helicopters in the world were U.S.-built, by Bell, Kaman, Boeing, and especially Sikorsky. That’s no longer true, and hasn’t been for a number of years. In the commercial market, the biggest sellers are Airbus Helicopter and Agusta Westland, and what U.S. sales there are happen to be mostly military, based on designs dating back to the 1970s.
UAV development? Israel leads in unmanned aircraft design and sales. Sweden’s MBDA has the most advanced air-to-air missile with its ramjet powered Meteor. At the same time, more and more U.S. military equipment, or key components of that equipment, is based on foreign designs and often foreign supplied parts and sub-assemblies.
In the one area where the U.S. does maintain a lead, if a dwindling one – fighter aircraft – acquisition and operating costs are continuing to skyrocket. Current costs of the F-35 fighter are running $100 million for each aircraft. Proponents claim that once full production runs are reached the cost will drop to a mere $85 million. The operating cost per hour for some types of F-15s runs over $40,000, while the F-18 E/F Super Hornet is the least costly U.S. tactical aircraft to operate, at a “mere” $17,000 per hour.
At one time, again back when I was flying, there were three U.S commercial aircraft manufacturers, and they essentially controlled the market. Now only Boeing is left, and it tends, for the moment, to split the major commercial markets with Airbus, while Embraer and Bombardier, Brazilian and Canadian respectively, currently lead in production of 100 passenger or less commercial aircraft.
Actually, from what I’ve observed, several factors have been in play. First, military aircraft became increasingly sophisticated and phenomenally expensive to design, produce and operate, which has meant far fewer are built every year. So, overall, there’s less business to be had. Second, the procurement process on the military side has become a nightmare. Third, U.S. aerospace companies have focused increasingly on profits at the expense of R&D. Fourth, the Pentagon has focused on the one-size-fits-all for new aircraft, and, frankly, I don’t see how designing an aircraft that meets mission specifications for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force can be anything but more expensive – no matter what all the cost analysts say, and there have been major cost overruns for just that reason all too frequently.
Then, add to that the fact that foreign competitors are building better aircraft than before, some of which are claimed to have advantages that U.S. aircraft don’t, and many of which offer high performance at far lower costs. There have been more than a few recent reports that Airbus has better pilot emergency warning systems than does Boeing, especially in dealing with auto-throttle and stall warning systems. Boeing’s response has been, essentially, “We don’t need to be any better.” And, for, now, with the cash cow that the 737 has become, apparently Boeing feels it doesn’t need even to address those claims.
Behind all this is another ominous aspect. As the U.S. production and technology lead in aerospace has been eroded, so have the number of high-tech, high-paying jobs, not to mention the number of workers. With fewer jobs, the young talent has to go elsewhere, either to other industries or other countries.
There is far more at stake than whose airliner we ride on, or how much profit the remaining aerospace companies make. In fact, U.S. aerospace profits were up last year… even as the rest of the world continues to overtake us… because niche markets, R&D, and competing for sales with a wider range of aircraft and aircraft systems all eat into this year’s profits, and apparently like every other U.S. industry, this year’s profits are all that matter to U.S. aerospace manufacturers.