COTS—our misunderstood friend

By Richard Aboulafia
VP, Teal Group

A History of COTS

As a term, COTS has been around for decades, and is generally regarded as the normal way technology flows between the civil and military sectors. Yet in early years of the jet age it was far more common to find technology from the military sector harnessed for the benefit of the civil market. The first US jetliner, Boeing’s 707, was derived from the KC135 Stratotanker, created for the US Air Force.

The Air Force’s C-X large cargo aircraft competition led to Boeing’s 747, based on the design that lost to the Lockheed C5 Galaxy. The first high-bypass turbofan engines, used on the 747 and every twin-aisle jet since, was also based on military-funded technology development programs. This flow of technology from military to civil was true in other segments too. Bell Helicopter’s long-running model 412 is based on the US Army UH1 transport.

In fact, most of Bell’s older models originated with military designs. Today, the situation is quite the opposite, as seen in the COTS market. But while new technologies, such as advanced materials, are often developed under the military’s aegis and migrated over to civil products, it it is very difficult to identify military airframes or engines developed over the past few decades that have found common civil use.

US Customs & Border Protection aircraft based on the Bombardier DHC8. Australia is another notable user of the Dash 8, for coastal surveillance.

The biggest COTS helicopter success—the US Army’s UH72—was accompanied by considerable criticism from politicians and government agencies that it wasn’t robust enough compared to a purpose-designed military helicopter, like Sikorsky’s UH60 Black Hawk.

The Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation said that the UH72 was “not operationally suitable,” especially in hot weather environments, because its cockpit electronics lacked adequate air conditioning.

Yet the same report stated that the UH72 “is effective in the performance of light utility missions,” that it was reliable, easy to maintain, inexpensive to operate, and represented a significant improvement over the Army’s old UH1Hs and OH58s. This criticism clearly illustrates an important COTS principal—the worst enemy of the “best” is the “good enough.”

Daher-Socata plans to install full Garmin G1000 avionics suites, including fully digital autopilot, on TBM700 and TBM850s.

For years, the Army had maintained its aging Huey and Kiowa fleet because it never had sufficient money to procure and operate Black Hawks as replacements. The UH72 provides a very cost-effective replacement. The fact that the it is nowhere near as robust as a UH60 should be completely irrelevant.

Similarly, in the aftermath of the VH71 debacle, the agencies responsible for creating the next US Presidential helicopter should keep in mind that a relatively straightforward COTS adaptation of the AgustaWestland US101, or a similar helicopter, would cost less than 1/3 of the VH71 final program cost.

And it would offer a considerable improvement over the current aging fleet. Considering these 2 key lessons, it’s not surprising that the COTS market is so fragmented. When looking to adapt an aircraft to accommodate a military or government mission with minimal platform modifications, it’s important to select the right aircraft for the job. Thankfully, there are many COTS aircraft to choose from.

Richard Aboulafia is VP Analysis at Teal Group Corp, an aviation and defense market intelligence and consulting company. He has tracked the business aircraft market for over 20 years.




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