Analysts at Forecast International are predicting a downturn in the military helicopter market that will last for several years.

The consulting company, which is based in Newtown, Connecticut, says that 4,384 medium- to heavy-lift military rotorcraft worth $104 billion will be built during the next 10 years.

Forecast also predicts that annual production of medium and heavy military rotorcraft will fall from 512 helicopters in 2012 to about 399 in 2017. The company predicts that production levels will rise slightly in 2018, but then continue to fall.

The company predicts a total production of only 376 aircraft in 2021. Forecast says US manufacturer Sikorsky is expected to lead the market with its venerable UH-60 Black Hawk series aircraft, which is primarily used by the US Army.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia, agrees with Forecast's prediction. "A lot of people in the market are concerned," he says.

The predicted decline comes after years of strong growth driven by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as western defence outlays decline, fewer customers are buying new helicopters. Moreover, many programmes are being reined in or wound down after running their course.

Forecast says that in the short term the only real prospects for a new US helicopter tender lies with the US Air Force's combat search and rescue helicopter programme to replace its aged Sikorsky HH-60G fleet. Aboulafia, agrees, but says the US Navy's VXX presidential helicopter might be another prospect, although it will probably be delayed.

Forecast believes there is a good chance the programme will be cancelled or delayed.

The USAF's common vertical lift support platform requirement to replace the service's Bell UH-1N Huey utility helicopters has essentially been terminated, with no money allocated to the programme in the fiscal year 2013 budget proposal. USAF officials say the service will refurbish existing aircraft or use surplus US Marine Corps UH-1Ns.

In the long term, the US Department of Defense's joint multi-role (JMR) project is the only completely new helicopter programme that might come to fruition, Forecast says.

Aboulafia says that the JMR is vital to the industry developing new helicopters and advancing technology. But for the next decade, it is going to be funded only as a research and development programme, he says.

The danger, however, is that military services have an easy fall-back of making incremental improvements to their existing helicopters, Aboulafia says.

Source: Flight International