Beating the Air into Submission: Investing in Vertical Lift Modernization
(Source: Centre for Strategic and International Studies; issued Feb 04, 2019)
The U.S. military’s vertical lift fleet of helicopters and tiltrotors is aging. With the exception of V-22 Osprey, no completely new aircraft designs have been introduced since the 1980s. Even the V-22 made its first test flight back in the 1980s. And the U.S. Army, which has the largest helicopter fleet and traditionally takes the lead on vertical lift innovation, has not made substantial investments in Research & Development since the cancellation of RAH-66 Comanche.

Today, there are ambitious plans to modernize the entire vertical lift fleet. However, much of the investment path ahead remains unclear. To make informed plans about the future, it is important first to understand how the United States arrived at its current state through past investments.


When it comes to military aircraft, fighters and bombers receive most of the attention. Discussions of next- generation aircraft, for example, tend to focus on sixth- generation fighters and the B-21 bomber. However, vertical lift aircraft (including tiltrotors, such as V-22 Ospreys, and helicopters, such as UH-60 Blackhawks) also play a fundamental national security role.

There are almost as many tiltrotors and helicopters in the U.S. military as there are all other types of manned combat aircraft combined.1 The size of the U.S. vertical lift fleet, alone, would still put the United States well ahead of Russia with the world’s largest air force.2 In fact, even after the recent retirement of OH-58 Kiowas, the U.S. Army’s helicopter fleet would be enough to hold the top spot by itself.3 And the Navy, Marines, and Air Force each have sizeable vertical lift fleets of their own that perform important functions, such as anti-submarine warfare, air assault, and combat rescue.

With more than $8 billion being spent each year on developing and buying new vertical lift aircraft, this category represents one of the most important investments for the Department of Defense. And given future investment plans, we are likely to see a generational leap in vertical lift aircraft well before we see a sixth-generation fighter.

Still, while vertical lift modernization plans are ambitious, much about the investment path ahead remains unclear. Understanding the drivers of vertical lift modernization is key to informed decision-making about the tradeoffs involved in future investment options. This analysis looks at how the United States arrived at vertical lift modernization’s current state through past investments.

Click here for the full briefing note (5 PDF pages) on the CSIS website.


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