A Second Chance for Sikorsky

In spurning Sikorsky’s Defiant-X helicopter, the Department of Defense left a sensible and superior aircraft on the drawing board. Connecticut should contract with Sikorsky to provide the Defiant-X to the CT National Guard and state police.

Late last year something important happened in defense industry that effected my home state of Connecticut. In fact, it effects everything that gets done in America’s defense industry: a contract was awarded. Specifically, a contract was awarded for the Army’s next generation helicopter. The contract did not go to Sikorsky.

Since Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big challenges facing defense contracting, procurement, and America’s industrial and military supply chain. What I realized, when Sikorsky lost out on this bid, was that the process has become too centralized — too rigid. It’s a winner-take-all system where everyone ends up losing.

After months of talking with lawyers, businessmen, people in the military, and other journalists, it doesn’t seem as thought there’s any specific prohibition against opening things up. Letting the states become arms brokers selling equipment and weapons (in accordance with State Department regulations) and also developing and buying them will create more points of failure in a very streamlined system. It will spur creativity and resilience. And it will help with accountability, as decentralization always does.

Below is an Op-Ed I never published on the subject of Connecticut picking up the contract Sikorsky lost out on. If you think it has legs, go ahead and forward it along to folks who can make use of it, whether you’re in Connecticut, or some other state.


 A Second Chance for Sikorsky

In spurning Sikorsky’s Defiant-X helicopter, the Department of Defense left a sensible and superior aircraft on the drawing board. Connecticut should contract with Sikorsky to provide the Defiant-X to the CT National Guard and state police.

To replace the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, the Department of Defense awarded Bell Helicopter a $1.3 billion contract to develop its V-280 Valor, rather than Sikorsky’s SB>1 Defiant-X.

The two platforms are very different. Bell’s machine looks a lot like another Bell offering, the V-22 Osprey, in use by the USMC. It takes off like a helicopter, with twin rotatable engines at the end of long wings, and then, once in the air, angles them forward to fly like a giant propeller plane. Like the Osprey, however, its ability to carry troops and cargo are vastly diminished once one accounts for armor, weapons, and cabin space, and mechanical difficulties have plagued the Osprey, which is widely loathed by Marine Corps infantrymen.

The Defiant, on the other hand, looks more like a conventional helicopter, and was designed by Sikorsky to occupy a similar profile on a runway. It is substantially taller than the Blackhawk, and uses a novel rotor configuration (called a “compound coaxial rigid-rotor”), a related version of which is in use by Russia with their helicopters, and can operate at higher altitudes and in colder weather without substantial loss of performance.

The Army has decided to follow the USMC and embrace VTOL platforms. Photo from NASA, via DVIDS.

$1.3 billion sounds like a lot of money — perhaps not quite so much as before Elon Musk bought Twitter, a digital space for perverts, fascists, and journalists, at $44 billion — but would be well within Connecticut’s ability to fund on its own; it would be even easier to do so as part of a regional consortium.

Since the end of the Cold War, America’s defense industry has followed the way of other global companies — cutting costs by focusing on supply chain efficiencies and superior production. Axing redundancy. Pick one size, make sure it fits every need. As the war in Ukraine is proving, while our quality control and capabilities have been delivered as promised, we’re also drawing on a very shallow pool. Ammunition for almost every weapon system is in short supply. Equipment is difficult to come by, and hard to replace.

The US needs to start thinking less like a giant corporation — less like Apple — and lean more on a traditional strength — variety. One way to encourage this industrial depth would be to allow states such as Connecticut to draw up its own procurement agreement with companies such as Sikorsky. That would mean putting the Defiant into production for the CT National Guard and state police forces, as well as sale to European partners.

This may sound farfetched. It’s actually quite feasible, practically and legally. Every crew that can currently maintenance a Blackhawk will have some ability to work with the Defiant; it has been designed with that purpose in mind, to minimize the amount of retraining needed and to nest with existing Army aviation infrastructure.

Connecticut could easily generate the $1.3 billion needed to make the investment — an investment that would be in the nation’s best interests, as well as the military’s. It would not go unrewarded. As European militaries ramp up to meet the threat of a hostile and expansionist Russia, many helicopters will be needed. Blackhawks are currently stationed in Germany, for example. It won’t be difficult for Germany to buy and operate Defiants. Other countries (presumably those with experience flying and maintaining the Blackhawk, with which the Defiant is designed to be largely compatible) might also buy the platform. $1.3 billion today is a substantial investment in tomorrow — and one that I expect would come with some return.

It's worth saying a quick word about drone warfare. Drones and robots may represent the future of war — it seems likely — but that future is still far away. They are a part of war, now, but Ukraine and Russia both lean heavily on helicopters to transport troops and equipment quickly; they are an important, even critical part of a modern military. That will remain true for decades. At present, drones are still developing. They cannot replace soldiers, and won’t any time soon.

America needs more production capacity for Valors, and for Defiants; as Russia has demonstrated, the beginning of the 21st century is shaping up to resemble the beginning of the 20th . As pleasant as it may be to delude ourselves that the peace and diplomacy of the 1990s will characterize global affairs, we would be naive fools not to prepare for the possibility or even likelihood that the future is far bloodier. The Pentagon and the federal government are not equipped to demand the variety of weapon systems and specialized labor needed to keep pace with current threats, nor is there the political will at the federal level, even if the need was recognized. Connecticut can choose to invest in itself — to invest in the thousands of expert jobs on the line, and a visionary platform that will be useful in the present and well into mid-century.

Governor Lamont, Senators Blumenthal and Murphy: let’s get this going. Invest in Sikorsky. If there’s some weird law prohibiting that investment, get rid of it. The country’s military readiness depends in substantial part on states like Connecticut.


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