The U.S. Combat Aircraft Industry, 1909-2000

Structure, Competition, Innovation

by Mark A. Lorell


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In its FY02 Defense Appropriations Conference Report, Congress expressed concerns about reduced competition resulting in a decline in innovation in the U.S. fixed-wing military aircraft industry. Drawing on primary and secondary sources on the aircraft industry, this report provides a brief survey of industry structure, innovation, and competition in the U.S. fixed-wing combat aircraft industry from its earliest days to the present. It supports a much larger research effort that examines the future of the U.S. military aircraft industrial base in response to the above congressional concerns. The study suggests that it is possible to identify at least five distinct technology eras over the history of fixed-wing, heavier-than-air combat aircraft, each of which began with a period of revolutionary innovation, high rates of technology advancement, and significant improvement in performance. The historical evidence suggests, but does not prove, that an industrial structure that includes numerous prime contractors is conducive to encouraging the onset of periods of higher innovation when demand changes and market conditions are right. Without such an industry structure, new Defense Department initiatives may be necessary to promote high levels of innovation. This is a companion volume to a report on the future viability of the combat aircraft industry: Competition and Innovation in the U.S. Fixed-Wing Military Aircraft Industry (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, MR-1656-OSD, 2003) by John Birkler, Anthony G. Brower, Jeffrey A. Drezner, Gordon Lee, Mark Lorell, Giles Smith, Fred Timson, William P.G. Trimble, and Obaid Younossi. It should be of interest to members of Congress, congressional staff members, industry executives, and others in the civilian and uniformed defense policy community interested in the future viability of the U.S. military aircraft industrial base.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Industry Structure and Competition in the Biplane Era

  • Chapter Three

    The Monoplane Revolution

  • Chapter Four

    The Subsonic- and Early Supersonic-Jet Revolutions

  • Chapter Five

    The Agile Supersonic Technology Revolution

  • Chapter Six

    The Stealth Revolution

  • Chapter Seven

    An End to Competition and Innovation?

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted in the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center supported by the OSD, the Joint Staff, the unified commands, and the defense agencies.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Monograph report series. The monograph/report was a product of the RAND Corporation from 1993 to 2003. RAND monograph/reports presented major research findings that addressed the challenges facing the public and private sectors. They included executive summaries, technical documentation, and synthesis pieces.

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