COTS—our misunderstood friend

By Richard Aboulafia
VP, Teal Group

IAI CAEW aircraft is based on Gulfstream G550 airframe. Used by Israel and Singapore, the new product offers a robust aerial detection capability with low operating costs.

Raytheon (now Hawker Beechcraft) also won the important Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) program, which involves an adaptation of the Pilatus PC9 turboprop trainer. Last year saw a record 109 T6 deliveries to the US Air Force, Navy and export customers. For Hawker Beechcraft, COTS-related government money is arriving at exactly the right time. In 2009 the company reported losses of $712 million.

Government business almost always provides a guaranteed profit margin. Without the MC12W program and other COTS work, Hawker Beechcraft’s losses would likely have been much worse. The company’s most direct rival, Cessna, provides a noteworthy contrast as a COTS loser.

In Nov 1992 Cessna announced a tandem seat trainer variant of the CitationJet to be entered in the JPATS competition, but it lost to the T6. The US Army C-XX contract, awarded in 1996, was good for 35 Cessna Citation Ultras for transport duties. Since then, the company has had no significant successes on the government sales market, aside from a few relatively small sales.

The biggest of these was 13 UC35Ds (Citation Encore variants) delivered to the US Marines in the mid 2000s. The absence of COTS work is a key reason for Cessna’s astonishing decline in 2009. The company’s deliveries that year declined in value from 2008 by 49%. While essentially serving the same civil markets, Hawker Beechcraft’s 2009 deliveries declined in value by only 29%.

All civil helicopter primes do considerable COTS work, but market leader Eurocopter has the unique distinction of achieving 2 major COTS program wins into the US market, which of course has its own competing manufacturers. In the 1980s it delivered 96 HH65s (SA365 Dauphin variants) to the US Coast Guard.

Britain’s Royal Air Force uses the Bombardier Global Express as its Sentinel R1 platform, giving the service a ground target tracking capability with reasonable costs.

In Jul 2006 Eurocopter’s EC145 won the US Army competition for a light utility helicopter. American Eurocopter is building 345 of these, designated UH72 Lakota. Deliveries ramped up to a peak of 4 per month in 2009, just as the civil market began to fall due to the economic downturn. Eurocopter also enjoys a strong lock on Franco-German COTS procurement, selling versions of all of its civil models to a variety of national and regional agencies.

In addition to new build work, it’s noteworthy that COTS planes generally provide more lucrative aftermarket business than their civilian counterparts. For example, in Feb 2010 France’s Ministry of Defense an­nounced that it was upgrading 26 TBM700s in French military and government service. Daher-Socata received a contract to install a full Garmin G1000 avionics suite, including a fully digital autopilot.

Two habits of successful COTS programs

Looking at the 3 prominent COTS failures mentioned at the start of this article, and at the very broad array of COTS successes, 2 important lessons become clear. The 1st lesson is to keep capabilities expectations realistic and aircraft-appropriate.

When designing a COTS system, it’s important to make the function fit the COTS airframe, not the other way around. In other words, COTS platform designers need to be realistic about selecting an appropriate aircraft.

They also need to make their systems, mission goals and performance parameters fit into that system. With each of the big 3 COTS failures, the program managers kept changing and expanding requirements.

They hoped that somehow either these additional requirements and systems could be “shoehorned” into the selected aircraft, or that the aircraft could be grown to accommodate the expanded requirements. When considering that 1st lesson in hindsight, it’s clear that at least 2 of those COTS failures had obvious causes.

In the case of VH71, the program managers obviously wanted the biggest airframe possible, but they were constrained by the operational need to land the helicopter on the White House lawn. Thus, they attempted to add features more appropriate for a CH47 or a similarly large helicopter, and the US101 wasn’t up to the job in OTS configuration.

Similarly, the Army and Navy managers behind ACS wanted the most capable surveillance aircraft possible, but were keenly aware that the Air Force would never tolerate the Army operating a plane bigger than the Embraer ERJ145.

The sensors and avionics mandated for the mission grew beyond the capacity of this aircraft. When the Army began discussing a move to a larger aircraft such as Embraer’s ERJ170, Air Force officials intervened, asserting that the Key West Agreement does not permit the Army to operate a jet in this class. The 2nd lesson is to keep the OTS in COTS. A successful COTS program involves minimal aircraft modifications.

The ARH70 and VH71 failed in part because they became much more than OTS adaptations of the aircraft on which they were based. When the VH71 managers violated the 1st principal of COTS and let their systems and goals get too big for the aircraft, they then violated the 2nd principal by attempting a radical redesign of the aircraft.

Embraer 145RS. The company’s small regional jet family has been adapted to a wide variety of military and government uses.

This involved major modifications to the dynamic system and significant airframe structural changes too. The current MC12W Project Liberty provides an excellent illustration of a COTS program that succeeds in keeping to a true OTS platform. In fact, the first 8 MC12Ws are based on used King Air 350s, while the remaining 29 systems use the 350ER.

The program works with several variants of planes, and they can be new or used, implying a minimum of specific aircraft modifications. Tellingly, the program’s name is a reference to WWII Liberty Ships, which were inexpensive, basic OTS vessels that provided logistics support and were built in mass production. At the other extreme is Boeing’s P8 multimission maritime aircraft (MMA).

While based on the BBJ, the P8 has weapons and sonobuoy bays and myriad other structural modifications to accommodate an array of powerful sensors and systems. It represents the most that can be done to a COTS-based system airframe and still have it considered COTS.

It clearly violates the 2nd lesson of COTS, but the blue water maritime patrol and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) mission simply requires something much more elaborate than a mere transport with a few sensors and weapons. The P8 is a risky program, but it’s still less costly and risky than starting with a clean-sheet aircraft design.


1 | 2| 3 next