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12 Topics To Watch in 2012

By Joseph C. Anselmo
12 For ’12


The U.S. Air Force’s tanker contract has been awarded,
Airbus and Boeing have moved to upgrade the A320 and 737,
and NASA’s space shuttle has flown its last mission.

It’s time to move on to 2012
and the next round of big developments in the aerospace and defense industry.

Here are 12 to keep an eye on.


Supply Chain Ramp-Up Airbus and Boeing won an estimated 2,150 net orders for new jets in 2011, with Airbus booking three orders for every jet it produced. The challenge in 2012 will be ramping up to fulfill all of those sales. So far, the supply chain has been able to keep up with measured production increases from the two airframers, but Tier 2 suppliers—which curtailed investments and capacity during the industry’s downturn in 2008-09—will be put to the test in 2012.


Chinese and Russian Space ProgramsChina’s space program took a great leap forward in November when the nation achieved its first docking in space. Plans call for two more docking missions this year—Shenzhou 9 and 10—as Beijing pursues a goal of launching a space station by 2020. Meanwhile, Russia’s space program is coming off a year of high-profile mishaps, raising concerns about NASA’s reliance on Moscow for access to the International Space Station following the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011.


Cyberdefense With the U.S. government and companies under intensive cybersnooping from China, cyberdefense has become more vital than ever to national security. Yet the U.S. still lacks a working plan for cyberoperations, which are divided between myriad government agencies and military fiefdoms that often fail to work together. Debate about the problem will continue in 2012—but a resolution could be elusive.


Aerospace Consolidation Look for United Technologies Corp.’s (UTC) $18.4-billion deal to acquire Goodrich to pass regulatory muster and close by May. The question is whether Honeywell, General Electric or other aerospace giants will move to counter UTC’s new “super supplier.” Meanwhile, consolidation further down the supply chain will continue apace as suppliers look for critical mass to meet airframers’ demand for fully integrated systems instead of parts.


UAVS In Civil Air SpaceLook for the FAA to release for public comment its first draft of rules allowing small, unmanned aircraft to fly in U.S. airspace, ushering in the creation of a new market beyond the military. Law enforcement agencies already are straining at the leash to use unmanned aircraft, and multiple programs are under way to demonstrate how UAVs as light as 2 lb. can be used by beat cops to “perch and stare” from the sky.CSeries Development of Bombardier’s CSeries passenger jet enters a critical phase, with first flight scheduled to occur by the end of the year. Will Bombardier be able to pull off the most ambitious aircraft development in its history without a major hiccup? How much will it add to its CSeries backlog of 133 orders now that more efficient engines are being offered on the competing Airbus A320 and Boeing 737? And will a move to build the CSeries fuselage in China pay off with a big Chinese airline order?


U.S. Defense Budget The U.S. Congress’s inability to agree on a deficit-reduction package will trigger $600 billion in automatic cuts to the Pentagon’s budget starting in January 2013—on top of $450 billion also approved. Defense hawks will try to roll back some of the cuts, but they face long odds in the absence of a comprehensive budget agreement. Brace yourself for lots of election year rhetoric—and fierce fighting to protect programs from the chopping block. Meanwhile, a shift in the Pentagon’s focus to the Asia-Pacific region could benefit the Air Force and Navy at the expense of the Army.


Lessons from AF447

An investigation into the crash of Air France Flight 447 off the coast of Brazil concluded that pilot error put the aircraft into a stall that sent it plunging into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 onboard. The fly-by-wire jet had been switched off autopilot after the icing of its pitot tubes led to the loss of airspeed data. The tragedy has prompted questions about whether training and cockpit procedures should be beefed up so that pilots are better prepared to recover from stalls and other unusual circumstances.


Commercialzing Space Are private companies ready to fill the void left by the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle? We’ll know a lot more by the end of 2012. SpaceX, which in 2010 became the first commercial company to return a spacecraft from orbit, will attempt a linkup with the International Space Station as early as February with its Falcon 9/Dragon. The Orbital Sciences Antares and Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo could make their maiden flights in 2012. Also in the mix are Blue Origin and Stratolaunch Systems, which are both backed by billionaires.


NextGen Modernization The FAA’s NextGen air traffic modernization initiative has been fully funded by the Obama administration and has powerful advocates in Congress and industry. Leave it to partisan politics to put that in jeopardy. If bitterly divided lawmakers are unable to reach a deficit-reduction agreement in 2012, discretionary domestic programs face $600 billion in automatic cuts— separate from an equal reduction in defense funding—over the next 10 years. Should that happen, it is hard to see how NextGen would continue unscathed.


Joint Strike Fighter We would be remiss to leave the largest Pentagon acquisition program ever off of our list. While it is unlikely the Joint Strike Fighter will face outright termination in 2012, a number of developments in the program bear watching. Will prime contractor Lockheed Martin deliver on its promised cost? Will the team continue to improve the pace of flight testing? And will the fighter jet still have three variants by the end of the year? Stay tuned.


Emissions Tax The European Union added airlines to its emissions trading system on Jan. 1, ushering in a new era of making carriers buy carbon permits to pay for their CO2 emissions. But with a chorus of objections from the U.S., India, China and other nations, the debate will rage on. The American Congress is working on legislation barring U.S. airlines from complying, while Chinese and Indian authorities have also taken steps to prevent their nations’ airlines from abiding by the new EU regulations.

Photo Credit: NASA




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