Special Operators Need Better, Faster Helicopters
“We’re going to hopefully guide the services into giving us something that is useful for us,” said Army Col. Douglas Rombough, program executive officer for rotary wing at U.S. Special Operations Command. “We certainly don’t have the budget or funding to guide a whole new generation of aircraft,” he told the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference.
The Defense Department’s current fleet of rotary wing aircraft comprises designs that are 30 to 60 years old. SOCOM has upgraded 1960s-era Chinook helicopter and modified it with SOF equipment at the Bluegrass Army Depot in Kentucky. Air Force Special Operations Command is upgrading the CV-22 Osprey’s 1980s-era technologies in incremental blocks via a similar process.
But that tried-and-true method will not yield new aircraft suitable for future SOF missions. “We’ve got to go through a whole new process,” said Rombough. “We need game changers.”
The Defense Department is pursuing a joint multi-role vertical lift program that is envisioned as four different classes of aircraft: heavy, medium, light and ultra. Based on combat troop weight of 365 pounds, the services are looking for the rotorcraft to have a 170-knot speed. The SOF community argues that is not fast enough. "We have to have a minimum of 200 knots capability,” said Rombough. “We’re always looking for a helicopter with higher speeds, but most importantly, it needs to be a helicopter that can quickly get to the objective.”
“It would be great to have that ‘Blue Thunder’ type capability we saw in the ‘80s on TV, where you can hover next to the building and push the silent mode so they can’t hear you,” he said.
A working group will meet next week in Reston, Va., to discuss and refine requirements for future vertical lift. There is a growing sense of urgency, officials said. Rotorcraft typically have about a 20-year lifespan. But when they are operating at maximum gross weights in harsh environments where SOF are fighting, the aircraft do not last as long. “They’re making only 15 years because of heavy usage,” said Rombough.
Army officials are estimating that their rotorcraft will reach the ends of their useful life expectancy in the 2030 time frame. “We are behind the power curve already if all of our aircraft hit at that same timeline,” said Rombough.