Two maritime competitions provide opportunities for the USA to advance or retard global industrial co-operation. Which will it be?

The US Navy is faced with a funding crisis in its Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) programme and as a result is considering following the lead of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme and signing up a series of international partners to help pay for development. Elsewhere in the US procurement chain, the Marine Corps is looking for a replacement for its ageing Sikorsky VH-3 Sea Kings used as presidential transports.

Within the pair are opportunities to either foster improved global industrial competition or exacerbate the feeling that the USA operates a one-way street for defence acquisitions.

Perhaps surprisingly - given that the US accounts for over 40% of the world's defence spending - the Pentagon cannot fund all of the programmes it has planned. Numerous programmes face funding shortfalls, leading to extended development, and some programmes will no doubt fall by the wayside. The MMA is probably too important to do so. The programme is not the first attempt to replace the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and EP-3 Aries surveillance platform - perhaps a 250-aircraft requirement - and many aircraft will be well over their planned airframe lives by the time the MMA enters service.

But despite the size of the requirement and the importance of surveillance platforms, even if the submarine threat has receded, the navy has so far accumulated only $76 million of the $2.17 billion required over the next five years. It has therefore looked to the JSF model as a means of boosting funding, and indeed the political support.

Elsewhere, the VVIP helicopter requirement is not that big a deal, 11 machines, but the winning design will also stand a strong chance in the US Air Force's pending combat search and rescue competition. The USAF will require around 100 machines. The USMC competition is likely to become a "knife-fight in a phone box" between the AgustaWestland/Lockheed Martin US101, based on the European manufacturer's EH101, and the Sikorsky H-92.

So the USA is now teetering on a precipice. On the one hand it will require European and perhaps Japanese support to develop one of its key programmes, and on the other the helicopter competition is shaping up as a classic "buy US" campaign, with Capitol Hill likely to be as critical a battleground as the Pentagon on the other side of Washington DC.

However, some countries are beginning to question whether the JSF model is providing the return on investment they were hoping for, or perhaps feel they were promised. Critics of US aerospace and defence industrial policy would suggest that JSF is a "you pay the money we take the work" policy. Perhaps this is overly harsh at this early stage, but the dissatisfaction expressed in some European capitals does not augur well for other programmes that choose to follow the JSF model.

There is no question that the USA should spend the vast majority of its defence dollars at home. Washington's allies similarly feel that money spent on defence should benefit their home economies. But if there is a need for partnering on major programmes, then perhaps there needs to be some thought given to creating a single homogeneous policy.

If a country is to be a partner on a programme, then it probably feels it is giving up part of its capability. In return then perhaps the USA should be willing to concede the odd programme in which the selected equipment was designed in another country. This is not to suggest that specific programmes should be set aside to be won by a non-US platform, or that there should be quotas - that would be a fine way of procuring unsuitable equipment.

However, it is not unreasonable to suggest that a move should be made to resist the extreme "not-invented here" element of pork-barrel politics. It should be remembered that like the few non-US developed aircraft that have been procured - notably the Boeing/BAE Systems AV-8 Harrier and T-45 Goshawk - are built in the USA and design work performed in the USA. The same could equally apply for systems, weapons and other aerospace and defence equipment. All that is required is more open and fairer competition.

Those JSF critics argued that the programme was a subtle way to eliminate global competition, reduce the rest of the world's aerospace industry to tin-bashers and build-to-print manufacturers. Some are beginning to feel the soothsayers were right. If the USA is to depend on overseas help to fund its development programmes, then perhaps there is a need to review the policy towards acquiring at least some overseas designs.

Source: Flight International