On Point: Fixing US Defense Procurement: A Texas Independent Helicopter Example

by Austin Bay
March 21, 2024

America's defense industrial base just received a bad report card -- and given recent U.S. defense industry foul-ups, several failing grades are well deserved.

The Ronald Reagan Institute, a think tank and foundation, issues a yearly report card evaluating what it calls the National Security Innovation Base (NSIB).

Innovation means both creative problem-solving and the mechanical engineering and manufacturing expertise that turn creative ideas into physical war-fighting systems, like ships, planes, sensors, weapons, ammo -- the metal or composite material or plastic objects with which American soldiers win wars.

The innovation base also includes the industrial base real-world manufacturing facilities and workforces that make the weapons.

Sample Reagan grades: The U.S. got a "D" grade for defense innovation and modernization. Major industry talent base also got a D -- industry "continues to face a graying talent pool" and younger workers lacking skills.

Private sector innovation, however, earned a "B." Thank goodness there's a lot of creative thinking going on. Creativity, however, is often hard to perceive, especially by politicians and generals beholden to politicians. But soldiers love creativity when a new device makes a difference on a battlefield.

Understand the Reagan Institute rates programs it knows about -- mostly those run by big defense firms (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, etc.) -- and the big, troubled contracts, like the flop of the Army's light attack helicopter program, which was killed Feb. 8.

I'm referring to the Army's Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft program (FARA). Armed light scout helicopters find targets and protect the flanks of ground forces.

The Army wanted to replace the Bell OH-58 Kiowa, a scout helicopter that was retired nearly 10 years ago. The Pentagon spent at least $2 billion on the scrapped program. Major manufacturers Bell and Sikorsky developed scout prototypes, but critics argued they were too expensive to build and maintain.

After cancelling the FARA program, the Army officials issued a statement arguing the Ukraine war indicates drones can substitute for light attack helicopters. However, everyone knows drones have severe limitations -- they are vulnerable to anti-drone weapons and jammers. Drones can handle reconnaissance but carry small weapons loads, and microwave weapons scramble their guidance systems. A manned helicopter can carry multiple weapons and rapidly respond to changing battlefield conditions.

What the Army really needs is a light attack helicopter working with drones, "pilot in the loop" synergy manned systems working with unmanned aerial and ground weapons systems.

A lot of soldiers know that to be true. So do savvy aeronautical engineers.

After the Army cancelled the contract in February, I contacted a weapons designer I know, a Texan named George Hamilton. Hamilton is a U.S. Army vet. I wanted his thoughts on the light attack helicopter fiasco.

I've seen several of Hamilton's designs and products. He has designed, built and flown his own airplanes. I've mentioned in a column an innovative ship he designed. A couple of years ago, I visited his workshop, and he showed me a sniper rifle he had prototyped and a sketch of a helicopter.

The first week of March, he called me and asked me to come to his workshop so we could discuss the Army's defunct contract.

In his workshop, he said it was time to see what he kept "behind the curtain."

I saw a full-size "master plug" of his light attack chopper's center section. Then he showed me the rest of the helicopter.

The components were molded all-composite material. Composite manufacturing is cutting-edge 21st-century aircraft manufacturing. All-composite material construction also reduces a warplane's radar and sensor signatures.

Hamilton told me he began developing the helicopter several years ago, on his own. Why? Here's the gist of what he said: "I knew the big manufacturers weren't going to build what the ground combat soldiers need."

He said the composite frame can accept an engine rated in excess of 2,300 horsepower, which was a requirement of the now-defunct contract.

In the heyday of American aircraft design and manufacturing, mechanical and aeronautical engineers who insisted on quality ran the big companies. Today, the big companies are run by "finance guys" with MBAs -- and Boeing's airplanes fall apart in the sky. But their big-business lobbyists keep the contracts coming.

It's time to revive American manufacturing with "little guy" innovation and insistence on quality.

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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