Sunday, June 1, 2003

Operation Iraqi Freedom has yet again demonstrated the unparalleled sophistication and supremacy of U.S. air power. Warplanes and precision-guided “smart bombs” directed by Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) have relentlessly battered the enemy. In military aerospace, the U.S. remains unquestionably the world leader.

In stark contrast, the war and the sluggish economy have plunged U.S. airlines deeper into their worst economic crisis ever. To address the challenges facing U.S. commercial aviation, and to ensure future leadership in military aerospace, the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry issued a report last November with recommendations for Congress and the administration to implement.

According to the report, one of the keys to ensuring the future of U.S. aerospace leadership in military aerospace is a significantly upgraded GPS system. This is of critical importance because the nation which controls the instruments of mobility will define industry leadership and power in this century. Europe is this nation’s leading aerospace competitor. And it is considering development of its own satellite guidance system, Galileo, as a GPS alternative. In the quest for aerospace supremacy, the competition between GPS and Galileo is crucial. The military implications of GPS are clear. But the benefits to commercial aviation are similarly important. If GPS and Galileo are both developed, it would mean two navigational “black boxes” for airplanes operating in Europe and the rest of the world. If one system prevails, it means only one “black box,” and the nation controlling that system will establish the international standards for guidance and navigation, both military and civilian.

GPS service is free — to everyone. The Europeans plan to charge, at least for Galileo’s most precise services. The U.S. Air Force, which manages GPS, is currently upgrading the system. There are discussions about leapfrogging these upgrades and going to vastly improved levels of guidance accuracy and signal reliability. Otherwise, Galileo would have the advantage when it enters service late in this decade.

A significantly improved GPS system, in addition to discouraging Europe from launching Galileo, would go a long way in furthering the commission recommendation to revitalize the U.S. air transportation system. GPS is the centerpiece in developing a highly automated, safe, secure and efficient air traffic management system to reduce congestion.

It may take a couple of years, but commercial air traffic will return to its peak levels seen in the summer of 2000, when crammed airplanes and delays frayed nerves. Further, in the next 20 years, experts estimate world carriers will require nearly 24,000 new large (100 seats or more) passenger and freighter aircraft to handle increased traffic.

More crowded airplanes could prompt interest, especially among business travelers, in “air taxis.” Now in development, these relatively inexpensive and efficient aircraft, carrying perhaps a half- dozen passengers, would ferry customers where they want when they want, sharply reducing travel time. However the market develops, improved GPS would allow more airplanes to fly closer together and operate more safely. This would reduce congestion and delays while we build the new airports and additional runways the rejuvenated system will require.

Vastly improved GPS would also allow guidance for civil and commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These could monitor U.S. borders, map agriculture and even hover above major cities bouncing cellphone signals between users.

We should not underestimate European competition. In less than 35 years, that region has captured approximately half the large airliner market.

The best deterrent to European competition is a strong U.S. aerospace industrial base. This means substantial and consistent government investment in research and development, as well as military programs to foster new technologies. Such government stimulus will encourage investment in the industry and support a supplier base for both commercial and military aircraft. This, in turn, will help address one of the industry’s other pressing problems — a diminished workforce. Aerospace employment is at its lowest level since record-keeping started in 1953.

Ironically, Europe and the U.S. are each others’ largest aerospace markets. So we have ample reason to continue transatlantic discussions, currently underway through organizations like the Aerospace Industries Association, to set common industry definitions and standards. Progress here will make cooperation easier while better defining areas of competition. The investments that led to air-power superiority in Iraq were made 10 to 20 years ago. The investments we make now will lay the foundation for America’s economic and military security in the years ahead.

Rep. Robert S. Walker is a former congressman and was chairman of the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry. John W. Douglass, a member of the commission, is president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association.

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