One of the biggest drawbacks of helicopters is that they are slow, which makes them vulnerable to enemy fire. U.S. special operations units, which recently suffered a historic loss when Taliban fighters downed a Chinook helicopter, killing 30 U.S. troops, including 22 Navy Seals, would greatly benefit from faster choppers.
“One hundred and seventy knots is not enough,” said Army Col. Douglas Rombough, the program executive officer for rotary wing at U.S. Special Operations Command. “We have to have a minimum of 200 knots capability. After you add all the things you like to add to the outside of that aircraft to make it shoot, move, communicate, with all the drag out there, we need to be proceeding to the objective at 200 knots or better.”
SOCOM helicopters are rapidly wearing down after a decade of nonstop operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military rotary-wing aircraft typically remain in service for a 20-year lifespan. But in the case of special operations forces, which fly helicopters at higher gross weights, the aircraft are only making it to the 15-year mark because of heavy usage in the wars, officials said.
Despite an extensive modernization program under way to recapitalize the vertical lift fleet, Army special operations officials have said that they cannot meet future operational requirements with upgrades alone.
Only new designs can achieve the speed, endurance, range and payload that operators want, officials said. Systems also are needed to reduce pilot workload.
“We’ve got to go through a whole new process. We need game changer-type stuff for all those reasons,” Rombough said at a special operations industry conference.
Conventional forces, too, are eyeing new aircraft. Army officials have said that the service’s rotary aircraft fleet by 2030 will have reached the ends of its useful life.
Finding replacement aircraft means technology development must start now.
In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates mandated that all the services begin looking at future joint rotary-wing lift requirements. They came up with four classes of joint multi-role aircraft: heavy, medium, light and ultra light.
At the conference, Rombough presented a PowerPoint briefing with slides that illustrated some deficiencies of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed reconnaissance helicopter. It cannot operate in 60 percent of the areas in Afghanistan, which is known for unforgiving flying conditions with rugged terrain, high altitudes and dusty environments. The new joint multi-role aircraft will have to provide drastic improvements over that current capability, he said. That includes increasing hover altitude by 150 percent, increasing payload by 40 percent, and doubling mission speed and endurance. Special operators also want to reduce acoustic detection by 50 percent and cut in half the aircraft’s turning radius.
In the meantime, Army special operations aviation forces are in the final stretch of modernizing their rotary-wing fleets. When the process is completed in 2015, the fleet will be composed of 192 aircraft and three variants: the MH-60M Black Hawk, the MH-47G Chinook and the MH-6M Little Bird.
The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review called for an additional MH-47G company. That effort will begin in 2013 and will be completed in 2015, when the fleet will comprise 69 Chinook aircraft, said Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, commander of the Army Special Operations Aviation Command. The new M-model Blackhawks, too, will finish fielding by 2015, he added.
U.S. Army Special Operations Command will also have a fleet of nearly 300 unmanned systems, to include the RQ-7 Shadow, and the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, derived from the Air Force’s family of Predator and Reaper remotely piloted aircraft.