Inter-Service Rivalry Surrounds Joint Heavy Lift Aircraft Program

By Stew Magnuson
Just when the Army and the Air Force appear to have settled disagreements over which service will control unmanned aerial vehicles and operate a new light cargo aircraft, along comes a new turf battle over yet another aviation program. The latest source of contention is a potential multibillion-dollar program to build a new large cargo helicopter for the military services, known as the joint heavy lift aircraft.

So far the program is “joint” in name only because the military service that is responsible for air transportation is not on board with the idea. An initial capabilities document has been signed by all the services except the Air Force.

“We are in a wrestling match a little bit with our Air Force partners, but we’re working through that,” said Col. Joseph Jellison, director of the Army’s concepts requirements directorate. But he characterized the initial capabilities document as a “success story” because it allowed the services to specify their requirements, which is a necessary step for the program to move forward. The Navy, for example, wants the aircraft to be refueled in flight. The joint heavy lift concept — sometimes referred to as joint future tactical lift — has been around for decades. Speaking at a conference of the Association of the U.S. Army, Bruce Tenney, associate director for technology at the Army’s aviation applied technology directorate, admitted that the project has been a tough sell to the Air Force.

There is a clear need for an aircraft that can carry loads as heavy as 28 tons into areas without airports, Tenney said Fixed-wing transportation aircraft, such as the C-130, require long runways.

Smaller airplanes also need a developed landing strip.

The ground services definitely see the benefits, Tenney said. The Navy, with the agreement of the Marines, wants such an aircraft to support their sea base concept. Sea basing calls for the service to gather a ship or ships to offshore locations so the Navy can carry out operations in areas where it lacks access to a harbor.

That would necessitate a vertical liftoff capability since a Navy boat could never accommodate a landing strip for such a large aircraft.

“It has been a barrier in getting the Air Force support for it as a requirement. I think we’re past that,” Tenney said.

A change in attitude is coming from the top down, he added. Without naming him, Tenney implied that this new attitude comes from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, who previously served as the commander of U.S. Transportation Command.

At the lower ranks, “there are cultural issues that are standing in the way and we’re working through those pieces,” Tenney said.

The cultural difference may be in how the services perceive the aircraft. The Marines and Army look at it as a “maneuver” vehicle — a way to hop their troops and equipment around a battlezone.

“That’s different than the traditional airlift community [who] see their role as a point-to-point delivery system where those points are very well defined and at well controlled locations,” Tenney said.

The Air Force also sees it as a threat to the C-130, Tenney said.

Nevertheless, he sounded an optimistic note. Besides the new leadership, there is little desire for another public battle between the Army and Air Force over a lift vehicle.

The two services had a rift over which would control the joint cargo aircraft program — another transport vehicle that was designed to carry troops and equipment shorter distances within a theater. Now designated the C-27J Spartan, the program overcame Air Force opposition to the Army flying a new fixed-wing aircraft.

“The Army wants to intrude on the Air Force’s turf, and the Air Force is holding the line,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group.

“The history of joint procurement projects is largely unblemished by success especially when the two services are likely to fight a turf war at any time,” he added.

Given the opportunity to speak for itself, the Air Force declined. Maj. Richard Johnson, an Air Force spokesman, said the service didn’t want to comment on Tenney’s remarks until after a bilateral Army-Air Force discussion took place in February.

Meanwhile, about $40 million has been spent on basic research for 11 contracts during the past two years, Tenney said. None from the Air Force, naturally, but the Army, Navy, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA have all chipped in, he said.

Along with the cultural hurdles, there will be technological challenges, he added. The design and nature of the vehicle is far from being resolved.

Early artists’ concepts of the program that came from contractors showed the JHL as a larger than normal helicopter. Tenney showed drawings that looked more akin to a C-130, but with tilt-rotary wings.

But “this is not a V-22 on steroids,” he said, referring to the Marine Corps’ and Special Operations Command’s tilt-wing helicopter that can land vertically and transform itself in flight to fly like a fixed-wing aircraft.

Mark Nixon, director of the vehicle technology directorate at the Army Research Laboratory, said basic wind tunnel research on longer rotary-wing diameters have shown early success.

However, helicopter manufacturers like to develop new aircraft based on familiar designs.

“And with JHL, we’re really out of our comfort zone and our box,” he said.

Tunney said the sea basing concept will require the aircraft to be as small as possible while still being able to fulfill the heavy lift job. The larger the airplane, the harder it is to land on a ship.

Other proposed requirements include a combat radius of 250 nautical miles, speeds of 300 knots and the ability to reach an altitude of at least 14,000 feet.

“Cruise efficiency is a big deal.” This is a 300-knot airplane. When you’re flying that fast drag is important, he said.

Also included are external lift capabilities and the ability to refuel the aircraft in flight or to be refueled itself.

Another advantage will be ground refueling capabilities, he said. The JHL could land and deliver JP-8 gas for as many as 40 Bradley fighting vehicles.

An additional crucial need for the Army is the capability to transport its Future Combat Systems vehicles, which are now approaching the 28-ton mark. The FCS program initially wanted their vehicles to be around 20 tons and transportable by C-130 aircraft. But that goal fell by the wayside as additional armor was required to protect crews. And as the weight of the equipment grew, the options for transporting FCS vehicles around battlefields shrunk.

The C-130, for example, was supposed to carry one non-line-of-sight canon. With that vehicle currently at about 27 tons, it must now be lifted on the larger C-17, which requires longer landing strips.

Today’s heavy lift helicopters can hoist external payloads such as vehicles as well.

The Army’s current rotary-wing heavy lift vehicle, the CH-47F Chinook, carries about eight tons externally about 50 nautical miles. The Marines’ CH-53E Super Stallion can lift a 6.5-ton payload about the same distance. The CH-53K Heavy Lift Replacement, which is still under development, should transport about 13.5 tons, but at double the distance.

But realities on the battlefield seem to be outstripping these requirements, as a report on pointed out. Ground vehicles that transport troops are growing heavier, not lighter. Up-armored humvees are commonplace, and are being replaced by mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles that, when empty, can weigh anywhere from seven to 16 tons. A Cougar-H MRAP can weigh up to 18 tons.

A letter to the Pentagon from the congressional rotorcraft caucus said it “is concerned about a lack of a strategic plan for improving the state of vertical lift.”

The Army’s aviation applied technology directorate has a strategic communications campaign to help sell the joint heavy lift idea, Tenney said. Staffers have made the rounds with about 50 senior officers, including combatant commanders, to make their case. Gathering letters of endorsement from these officers has been part of that effort.

“When you describe this capability to the combatant commanders, they get it,” Tenney said.

One thing he has learned from the commanders is that the office hasn’t been selling the aircraft as an effective way to deliver supplies in a disaster relief scenario.

The next step will come this summer when a Joint Requirements Oversight Council examines the initial capabilities document.

“We have analyzed that until most of us involved in this are sick of analyzing it,” Tenney said. “It is time to move forward,” he added.

Still, there is considerable skepticism in the aviation community. Tenney asked the conference attendees for a show of hands: how many there had heard of the joint heavy lift program? Nearly everyone in the packed conference room responded.

“Who believes that we’re going to build this airplane and fly it, at least in the prototype stage?”

Only two attendees of the hundreds were spotted sheepishly raising their hands.

Aboulafia said there are ample reasons for cynicism when it comes to building the joint heavy lift aircraft.

Rotorcraft research and development is extremely weak, he said. Most of it goes into upgrades for current systems or aircraft derived from previous models — not advanced concepts.

“If somebody realizes the need for new rotorcraft development, this would be a great place to pursue it, but this doesn’t seem to be a very high priority for the Pentagon right now.”

 “We don’t even know if you can do C-130 size with rotors without impossible costs,” he added.

Furthermore, the rotorcraft aviation community does not have the best reputation for developing new aircraft in a timely manner. The V-22 took more than two decades. The Comanche helicopter was in development for 22 years when the Army cancelled that ill-fated program.

 “Joint heavy lift is alive,” Tenney told those who failed to raise their hands. “You need to believe it. We can’t win this fight if this community doesn’t believe it.”

Topics: Aviation, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Air Force News, Army News

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