Whether they belong to the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines, military helicopters are aging fast.
Many models are expected to reach the end of their operational lives in the 2030 to 2040 timeframe.
As it stands, none of the services have concrete plans for what to do when their various fleets become obsolete. Beyond that date, nearly everything that can be bolted on or replaced on the airframes will have been done and the risk of flying the aging aircraft will outweigh their utility, according to officials.
“My helicopters are not Christmas trees,” said Navy Capt. Paul Esposito, commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic. “We can’t just keep hanging things off them. Helicopters have a finite size and a finite amount of power.”
The last 10 years have been brutal on many of these aircraft — flying combat support and search-and-rescue missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly every make and model of helicopter available is straining under constant use, myriad ad-hoc upgrades and age.
Army aviators alone have flown 4 million hours in the two wars.
“That’s a significant, significant body of work,” Col. Richard Koucheravy, chief of the aviation division at the Department of the Army headquarters, said. “The impact of those hours is going to be felt in our fleet for a long time to come.”
Koucheravy, along with Esposito and others, spoke at Helicon Summit East, a symposium on rotary wing aircraft hosted in December by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement.
Rotary wing commanders’ desire to replace the aircraft by 2030 may run up against an uncertain future when development dollars could run dry.
“It’s a workout keeping these things going and we are still flying the snot out of them,” Esposito said.
The modernization programs military officials are calling for would prove a hefty bill in any budget environment.
With few exceptions, the helicopter designs used by the various military branches are at least 30 to 50 years old. The CH-47 Chinook has been around since the early 1960s. The UH-1 “Huey” design is just as old. Even the relatively new Apache attack helicopters used by the Army are going on their 20th year in service.
Other branches’ aircraft are experiencing the same fatigue.
Used for everything from Army reconnaissance and combat support to anti-piracy missions flown off aircraft carriers, helicopters are increasingly the backbone of each of the services. They are also a mainstay of humanitarian missions worldwide.
While acquisition planners wait for the budget ax to fall, projects are under way to develop a next-generation vertical lift vehicle that can fulfill the almost universal desire for faster, tougher helicopters, or some other revolutionary flying machine that preserves their capabilities while enhancing safety and speed.
The Army is leading the search for the joint multi-role vertical lift technology that could replace traditional military helicopters.
Meanwhile, industry representatives say the future is now. They are pushing ahead with their own next-generation designs.
Sikorsky’s two-seater X-2 is tested and has already flown. It hovers like a helicopter and flies as fast as some fixed-wing aircraft.
The X-2 technology, with twin coaxial rotors that spin in opposite directions and a “pusher” propeller on the tail, is being developed into the S-97 Raider by Sikorsky. Able to fly at more than 200 miles per hour — faster than the speediest helicopter — it was offered in 2010 as a replacement for the Army’s scout helicopter.
With the capacity to carry up to six troops, along with a flight crew of two, the Raider could be developed to fulfill a number of desired roles, according to company documents describing the technology.
EADS has developed an X-3 hybrid helicopter that could meet the joint multi-role specifications. It has dual forward-facing props on mini-wings flanking the cabin and mounted beneath a conventional rotor. The X-3 can reach speeds of nearly 250 miles per hour.
Many of the officials at the summit pleaded for such industry-led initiatives. With dwindling budgets for research and development, working prototypes developed and paid for by industry are more attractive than government-led projects.
“We see what industry is doing on our behalf and how much industry has done out of its own pocket,” said Navy Capt. Douglas Ten Hoopen, commander of the Helicopter Maritime Strike Wing, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. “Those are the kinds of things we are going to need to see more of in the future.”
What everyone hopes to avoid is another drawn-out saga reminiscent of the Army’s abortive search for a new scout helicopter. Army officials twice pursued a replacement for the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. Both programs were canceled because of development delays and ballooning costs.
For its part, the Army has a two-pronged approach to eventually achieve a more modern fleet of helicopters prior to the adoption of a next-generation platform. First is to retrofit and upgrade its existing fleet to get its current aircraft to the 2025 to 2030 timeframe.
“Modernization is a constant process,” Koucheravy said. “Sometimes even when we buy new, what we’re really buying is an evolutionary change. As you do things to sustain these airframes, you have to get as many incremental increases in survivability and performance as you can.”
Even if a next-generation helicopter is developed, it will likely not be fielded for a decade or more. Therefore, the Army has launched a parallel effort to replace or recapitalize its Kiowa fleet so those aircraft last until 2025. The choice is whether to purchase a new helicopter, like the Bell Helicopter-built OH-58F or the AAS-72S built by American Eurocopter in partnership with Lockheed Martin, or to rebuild its existing fleet. It has asked industry to demonstrate existing, available technology at a fly-off this spring.
“If we choose to purchase a new helicopter, we anticipate heading down that path in the next year or so,” Koucheravy said. “We anticipate acquisition officials will give us a decision by this time next year.”
Once a decision is made, there will likely be a two- to three-year development process with the new design being fielded sometime around 2020, Koucheravy said. It will likely take a decade to finish procurement.
The Army isn’t the only service that has adopted that plan. Both the Navy and Marine Corps have incrementally upgraded their helicopters for decades. The UH-1 design has gone through several model-series evolutions since its introduction during the Vietnam War. Marines are in the midst of replacing the current version with a new-build aircraft called the UH-1Y.
The Navy and Air Force rely most heavily on the Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk and its variants, which also have undergone several phased upgrades since its introduction in the 1970s. The UH-60M version should carry naval rotary wing aviation to 2025.
The Navy expects to invest heavily in helicopters, having experienced their utility in search-and-rescue, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare. By 2014, more than half of naval pilots will fly helicopters, Hoopen said. The Navy’s Blackhawk fleet also will reach the end of its service life around 2030, Hoopen said.
In Afghanistan, the Blackhawk has proven invaluable as a maneuverable helicopter that can perform in extreme environments, even soft-landing on the roof of mud huts without collapsing them while recovering wounded troops.
Whatever the follow-on aircraft to the Blackhawk — also used by the Army and Coast Guard — looks like, Hoopen said, “We fully expect it to be something other than a new model series of the H-60.”
Until then, the Air Force plans to extend the life of its Blackhawk fleet to reach the 2030 deadline, even if it means downsizing the inventory, said Brig. Gen. Michael J. Kingsley, director of the Air Force special operations command.
“Having fewer aircraft does not always mean less capability,” Kingsley said. “We have got to recapitalize these aircraft somehow.”
The Navy’s MH-53E built by Sikorsky, the largest helicopter in the military’s inventory, is also in need of replacement, Hoopen said. To fulfill its role of heavy lift and anti-submarine warfare, that replacement will likely have to be a separate design.
“If it’s not the MH-53K, it will be something similar,” he said.
New-start helicopters have alternately succeeded or frustrated military procurement officials in the past.
“We rarely are successful with the big steps,” Koucheravy said. “In the past some have failed miserably, but some of them have succeeded.”
But the constant addition and upgrade of equipment in combat over the past decade have resulted in rotary aircraft that only outwardly resemble their original iterations, said Koucheravy.
“In the end, what you have is a fleet of aircraft that have almost become optimized for the current fight they’re in,” he said.
What is needed to confront future threats is something fundamentally different than the designs the military has relied on for decades, he said.
The helicopter’s replacement may not even be rotary wing in the conventional sense. The joint future vertical-lift program is aimed at finding more capable technology that can preserve the versatility of a helicopter while ramping up speed, range and survivability.
The ultimate expression of the joint vertical-lift project could be more reminiscent of the V-22 Osprey, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like a plane, or something completely different. Koucheravy warned of thinking inside the box where current vertical-lift technology lies. He also said it would be unwise, as the Army in particular replaces the Blackhawk, Apache and Kiowa, to plan on procuring three separate designs. The program will likely result in two designs — one for attack and one for utility and heavy lift, he said.
“If you make the assumption it will be rotary wing technology, when what you mean is vertical lift, it hems us into a box,” Koucheravy said. “It could be a hybrid aircraft or something else. That’s what the Army’s future is beyond the current fleet.”
He expects Army research and development dollars will begin flowing to that program sometime before 2020.
The Army sent a request for information to industry in November. It expects an announcement of its desired capabilities this month, with contract awards to follow sometime in late 2012, according to the Army News Service.
The RFI called for designs that can fly faster than 195 miles per hour at an overall combat range of 500 miles and hover with full combat load at 6,000 feet on a 95-degree-Fahrenheit day.
The program also calls for advanced infrared countermeasures, a high-tech laser jamming system to divert incoming missiles.
Next-generation sensor technologies are needed for target acquisition not only of incoming electronic missiles, but of shoulder-fired “dumb” ordnance like rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire — two of the most deadly weapons used against helicopters in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Autonomous targeting systems that can detect and track threats are also being sought that can incorporate multiple targets and environmental conditions into fire-control decisions.
The RFI also seeks advanced human-machine interfacing, including technology that would allow for teaming of manned and unmanned aircraft. Finally, better automatic air-to-air avoidance should be able to track objects on the ground and in the air that pose a collision hazard for the aircraft and alert pilots in time for evasive maneuvers.
Perhaps most importantly, the aircraft must be affordable not only upfront, but also over its service lifetime.
It “represents a unique opportunity to apply historic amounts of creativity and innovation to the single-largest decision factor influencing the entire life cycle of an aircraft: cost,” the RFI stated. “With a clean-sheet design, it may be possible to incorporate from the beginning new technologies, new concepts, new processes, or even old ones that could not win their way onto fielded platforms.”