Ghost of Comanche Haunts Army Helicopter Leaders as They Push for New Models

By Stew Magnuson
Army Aviation officers want a family of new helicopters. Not now, but 20 years from now. Two decades may sound like a long time — but its is not when developing Army rotary wing aircraft.

Brig. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield, Army aviation commanding general, said the service needs to build new rotary wing aircraft by 2030, and the process must begin soon.

“I don’t want my grandchildren to be flying the UH-60 Zulu model,” he said at the Association of the United States Army aviation conference.

The service lives of the AH-64 Apache Block III and UH-60 Black Hawk end around 2040. The CH-47 Chinook stops in 2035 and the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior in 2025.

“When that all ends, we have to have something ready,” Crutchfield said. The deadline for producing new helicopters to replace the four models should be 2030, he said.

The airframes for these aircraft date back as far as 50 years and are routinely called “Vietnam War” technologies. However, they have all undergone numerous changes to their internal components as new models, or blocks, have been produced.

The problem, helicopter experts said, is that the Army is not currently investing in the cutting-edge technologies that would make a new generation of vertical take-off and landing aircraft possible.

Crutchfield said the difficulties with new helicopter programs in the past have been that technology, as well as the needs of the service, evolve during a long, drawn-out process. Inserting new requirements in the middle of the development cycle has led to the failures.

Case in point is the canceled Comanche program, which lasted 22 years, and only resulted in two prototype aircraft. The Huey, when it was developed in the 1950s, took eight years from concept to delivery, he noted. It took eight years just to name the Comanche, he said.

Paul Bogosian, former program executive officer for Army aviation, said unless current investments in rotary wing research and development increase, the service simply won’t know what it can and can’t achieve for these next-generation aircraft.

“You’re either going to have to accept the limitations of conventional rotary wing technologies. Or you’re going to have to ask yourself, ‘What levels of investments do I want to make to overcome those?’” he told National Defense.

Funds originally intended for the Comanche were invested in new conventional helicopter technologies that were later inserted into subsequent blocks of Chinooks, Black Hawks and Apaches.

Those efforts will allow the service to fly those models for the next 20 years, Bogosian said. Army officials from outside the aviation community look at these programs and think the branch is “well positioned.”

Army aviation “is obviously competing for investments with other parts of the Army that have equally justifiable demands and didn’t have the advantage of the huge investment we made from the Comanche funds,” Bogosian added.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group, said: “Rotorcraft procurement money is fantastic. Rotorcraft new technology and development money is almost non-existent,” he added. “I think they need to start thinking about the next act.” Production numbers are strong through the decade, but after 2019, the numbers plummet because there is no next-generation helicopter in the plan.

“The smart thing to do is to think about what to do next, and attract funding for the next-generation product or a major new derivative,” Aboulafia said.

Maj. Gen. William T. Crosby, the present PEO for Army aviation, said the $107 million per year spent on army aviation R&D is inadequate.

“How can you look to the future when you have a $7 billion budget, but just over $100 million spent on” science and technology? he asked at the conference. “How can you look to the next vertical lift technology with a pittance budget like that?”

Leaps in capabilities — namely speed, agility and endurance — could come in the form of compound helicopters, Bogosian said. These aircraft only hover when they need to and use other means of flying as they travel from point A to point B. The Marine Corps and Special Operations Command’s V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft is an example of this.

Compound aircraft concepts have been around for many years, but there is still a lot of research needed in such subsystems as propulsion, flight controls and materials, he added.

Crutchfield said the requirements — once they are written — need to remain in place for the length of the development cycle. If any new needs or technologies come along during that time, they should not be integrated into the aircraft until there is a new block or model, Crutchfield said. The Comanche was an example of what happens when there is this so-called “requirements creep.” “We may not get it completely right. But we can’t get it completely wrong,” he said of the proposed aircraft.

This would not involve changing the Defense Department’s acquisition process. If the Army clearly articulates what it needs — as opposed to what it wants — and it sticks to the requirements, then Crutchfield said, the “process will work.”

As to whether the Army can truly show the discipline needed to embark on new helicopter programs without changing requirements midstream, or inserting new technologies if they come along, Bogosian said it was “virtuous” for Crutchfield to take away lessons from Comanche. However, there are implications to doing that.  

“You must still design your requirements in such a fashion that they can accommodate the technical advances that present themselves,” Bogosian said.

“It’s easy to say, ‘we’ll worry about adding that later.’ If you have to remanufacture an aircraft substantially or do something to it that is significantly disruptive to its availability to the war fighter, then you have just pushed the problem down the road,” he said.

“You have to look in both directions at the same time. You have to discipline yourself up front. You have to prepare yourself to introduce new technology in the future. It’s a challenging requirement but that has to be done,” he added.

The helicopter in most dire need of replacement is the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout. After the Comanche was canceled in 2004, the Army embarked on a program to field a new reconnaissance helicopter to replace the aging Kiowas. Seven years later, there is no replacement in sight.

The Army still is in study mode when it comes to the Kiowa replacement, and other programs, such as the joint multi-role helicopter program and joint future theater lift, which may lead to new utility, attack and lift helicopters.  

The Army is producing an “analysis of alternatives,” which will lay out options to replace the Kiowa. The result of that study is expected this year.

Bogosian said the other big unknown, aside from science and technology investments, is the role unmanned aircraft will play.

“The wild card is the prevalence of unmanned aircraft and how they are going to redefine what the expectations will be for Army aviation 20 years hence,” he said.

Meanwhile, helicopter manufacturers are lining up to tout their off-the-shelf solutions — many of them based on conventional rotary wing designs — for the Kiowa replacement.

EADS North America, which has successfully produced the UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopter for the Army, has proposed that airframe as a candidate. It is derived from a European-designed civil aviation aircraft, and is the only successful fielding of a new helicopter since the Comanche cancellation.

“We’re not trying to get in front of the Army doing the [analysis of alternatives],” said John Burke, EADS North America vice president and manager of the UH-72A light utility helicopter program. But, “We believe that the armed scout is a natural evolution” of the Lakota aircraft, he told reporters at an AUSA conference.

The Lakota was designed to be a domestic aircraft, primarily used by the National Guard and did not require the integration of weapon systems or protective devices such as counter-shoulder-fired-missile systems.

EADS has altered three of its LUH models to prove that the aircraft could be modified into a combat-ready scout/attack helicopter.

Other aircraft makers have small, light helicopters they are expected to put forth as solutions such as Boeing’s AH-6, which is sold internationally and adapted for use by Special Operations Command and known there as the Little Bird.

Sikorsky, in anticipation of Army requirements, began developing its new X-2 compound helicopter in 2005 with its own R&D dollars. The aircraft broke an unofficial speed record at 250 knots last fall with a propulsion system that uses a twin coaxial counter-rotating main rotors and a pusher propeller in the back to move the aircraft forward when it is in the flight mode.

Chris Van Buiten, Sikorsky’s chief of technology and innovation, said the company will spend the next five years developing a Y-model of the aircraft, the S-97 Raider, believing that it could be a candidate for an armed scout helicopter program.

However, the company has looked at applying the technology to a variety of applications including attack, utility, and even lift.

“We have a full spectrum of options,” he said. Sikorsky, builder of the Black Hawk, is still investing in conventional aircraft technology, and the company is prepared to add improvements to its signature military aircraft if that’s what the Army wants, he said. For example, it is part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program looking at how to increase the performance of rotor blades.   

The Bell Helicopter and Boeing team that produced the V-22 believes that the tilt rotor-wing compound technology is mature enough to be taken to a next generation, said Chuck Gummow, V-22 business development manager at Bell Helicopter.

“This is a first-generation tilt rotor. So as we’re bringing it out over the next 20 years, our affordability is going to get better, the technology is going to get better, and more importantly, there will be lessons learned about tilt-rotor technologies,” Gummow said.

He said there will be a scaled-down advanced tilt-rotor aircraft introduced by the two companies that could perform a variety of missions and would not just be a modified V-22. He stopped short of saying it could be used as a heavy lift aircraft, though. Bell’s partner, Boeing, manufacturers the Chinook heavy lift helicopter and he was reluctant to say anything about an Osprey variant being used in that category. The V-22 is a medium lift aircraft. The two companies will be partners on any joint multi-role aircraft if one should emerge, he said.

A Boeing spokeswoman could not provide comment.

Bogosian said the V-22 has its proponents and detractors. One criticism is that the tilt-rotor technology is expensive. The V-22 currently costs $67 million apiece.

Gummow said most of the research and development costs into the compound aircraft have already been undertaken. The next-generation of the technology would be less expensive.

Gummow took a swipe at rival Sikorosky and its recent claim that the X-2 broke a speed record.

“They made a big deal of hitting 250 knots. Well, we hit 250 knots 30 years ago,” said Gummow. Customers like the Marine Corps want to go 350 knots, he said. They don’t want to go backwards.

Sikorsky’s Van Buiten countered that the X-2 design will allow for better maneuverability in urban areas, where studies show that most future military operations will take place.

“Aircraft with wings don’t function well in the urban environment,” he said.       

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing

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