Crisis in aerospace research spreads to defence, with spending on engine programmes plunging to all-time lows

Key US defence and industry research officials warn that the continuing shrinkage of science and technology funding could have a devastating impact on the nation’s leading position in aerospace and propulsion. The crisis in aeronautics research, which has cut deeply into NASA’s work, appears to be spreading to US defence-related programmes, up to now considered guaranteed to receive aerospace research funding.

USA Propulsion

Although US defence spending remains high, funding for propulsion research is plunging to all-time lows because of the rising cost of sustaining the existing fleet and surging fuel prices. “We’re starting to eat our own here,” says William Koop, chief of the turbine engine division of the US Air Force Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate. “We’ve had a long history of science and technology investment until recently, but there’s been a dramatic reduction from $134 million last year to below $90 million. That’s having a big impact on what we’re able to do, and how fast we can do it.”

The US Department of Defense fleet consists of around 24,350 aircraft powered by about 47,650 turbine engines. “Every year the DoD invests almost $7 billion a year on sustainment costs,” says Koop.

The other big drain is fuel costs. “Every year we burn around 5 billion gallons [19 billion litres] – and 15 months ago that cost around $4.7 billion. But now it costs us $8-9 billion – so that’s almost double.” The fuel rise “woke up some people in the department who are calling for more efficiency and asking why we didn’t have it today. The phone has been ringing off the hook with people asking us what we’re planning to do on that – failing to realise that everything we’re doing today is the result of investments made five years ago.”

Key research efforts such as VAATE – the DoD-industry Versatile Affordable Advanced Turbine Engines programme – continue to be funded for the moment, but the outlook for many other US Air Force research efforts looks bleak, with “lots of uncertainty beyond 2007”, says Koop.

Speaking at an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics meeting in Tucson, Arizona, Koop added that “we have a solid science and technology plan called VAATE, and we intend to hold the line”.

Bennett Croswell, vice-president for military development programmes at Pratt & Whitney, adds that the industry faces threats from its own success. “The health of engines today is sort of hurting us – incredibly too, there’s a belief that gas turbine propulsion is a sunset industry, and that the major innovations have already been found.”

General Electric advanced tech­nology and preliminary design special projects manager Clay Haubert adds: “We are in dire need of restocking the technology bank, and with VAATE we need a new centreline engine with new pressure ratios and cycles. Right now we don’t have the funding for it.”



Source: Flight International