Future Helicopter Technology Remains Up in the Air
What’s worse, say Army aviation leaders, is that there is no new-start program of record for rotorcraft and the only new platform introduced in the past quarter-century was the V-22 Osprey, which is flown by the Marine Corps.
Despite budget cuts, Army aviation officials are pushing forward with plans to develop a radically new vertical-lift technology before the current fleet reaches the end of its service life.
In all, the Army has 3,850 rotor-wing aircraft and a smaller fleet of fixed-wing airplanes. It spends about $7 billion annually on aviation and there is little indication its slice of the pie will grow.
The self-imposed deadline of 2030 is still on the horizon, but between now and then many of the Army’s workhorse helicopters will become functionally obsolete or so overburdened with upgrades that they are not worth flying and barely capable of accomplishing the mission at hand. Now is the time to begin investment in serious development of what Army leaders interchangeably call “future vertical lift” and the “joint multi-role” helicopter, said Rusty Weiger, the Army’s deputy program executive officer for aviation.
“There are new jet fighters all the time, it seems, and we’re still on the first-generation helicopter. There’s nothing on the horizon for new platforms,” Weiger said at an Aviation Week conference in Washington, D.C. “If no one had had the vision in the 1970s, we would have fought Desert Storm with Hueys and Cobras. Someone had the insight to move forward at that point. It is time for us to do the same thing with these platforms.”
What the future of Army aviation will look like remains elusive and the requirements equally ethereal, but leaders in search of the futuristic technology have pledged to suppress their appetites for current systems in order to find the next aircraft.
Unlike other big-ticket platforms such as jet fighters and Navy ships, there are no programs of record for new-start rotorcraft. Neither is there Defense Department funding dedicated to development of future vertical-lift technologies.
Plans are to start development of a medium utility platform within the decade, said Weiger.
“We’ll be focusing on the medium version first,” he said. “That’s where we think we’ll get the best bang for our buck. It is also where we think we’ll get the most support from the other services.”
One goal is a standard architecture that can be scaled to meet other requirements. The medium version will first be scaled down into a light aircraft, then up into a heavy-lift platform, according to Weiger’s prospective timeline.
Developing the medium utility-attack variant first will allow the Army to replace 80 percent of its rotary wing fleet, he said.
Maj. Gen. William T. Crosby, Army program executive officer for aviation, has said as much in various settings, promising to focus on the middle and develop outward.
“We’ve got to keep focused on a balanced approach,” he said. “We’re going to focus on the attack/utility variant because more than 75 percent of our fleet is in those categories. That way we get the best bang and return for our investment.”
The Army already has an idea of what future helicopters need to be able to do, though no formal requirements have been released. A refined list is expected to be released in early April in concert with the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference in Nashville, Tenn.
Informally, aviation leaders have a wish list of characteristics for their desired aircraft.
The medium-lift version should have a top speed of between 170 and 300 knots with a combat range of 260 miles. It should carry an interior payload of between 5,000 pounds and 20,000 pounds and have an exterior payload of up to 23,000 pounds. If it can do all that and carry between 13 and 24 passengers, it should satisfy the Army’s future needs, said Weiger.
Reliability and maintainability are also essential, especially if the Army wants to remain frugal as it moves forward, said Maj. Gen. Anthony G. Crutchfield, commanding officer of the Aviation Center for Excellence and Ft. Rucker, Ala. That means designs that incorporate interchangeable parts and fuel economy to inherently reduce the new aircraft’s logistical footprint, he said. The Marine Corps has already taken some of this into account in buying upgraded versions of its workhorse UH-1Y utility helicopter. The upgrade to the UH-1N currently being introduced brings it to 85 percent compatibility with its sister gunship, the AH-1 Cobra.
“Improved maintainability and reliability at a lower operating cost is going to be very difficult,” Crutchfield said. “I think industry can help us do that as we think about the future of vertical lift.”
One step has already been taken in that direction. A fifty-fifty partnership between Pratt & Whitney and Honeywell Aerospace is developing the Advanced Affordable Turbine Engine, specifically designed to provide a 30 percent increase in horsepower for helicopters while at the same time cutting fuel consumption by 25 percent. The engine, developed under an Army plan called the Improved Turbine Engine Program, will eventually be a drop-in replacement for the GE T700 turbo shaft engine that currently powers the AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Blackhawk. The Army will be able to achieve improved performance and fuel savings by retrofitting those aircraft with the ITEP engine in the short run.
“We see that as the power plant for the future Joint Multi-Role, Future Vertical lift, whatever you want to call it,” Crobsy said. “But we want it to be retrofittable, too.”
While it delays Army aviation modernization for two to three years, the Obama administration’s five-year defense spending plan is mum on future research and development funding for new technologies. Recognizing JMR as an out-year priority, leaders are shaving costs elsewhere to prepare for a potential program.
The Army has abandoned ambitious plans to develop a new armed aerial scout helicopter in favor of shopping around for a commercial off-the-shelf solution. Sometime this year, industry will demonstrate existing technologies as possible cost-effective replacements for the aging Kiowa Warrior. (See related story here.)
At the expense of buying new scout helicopters and retrofitting existing platforms, the Army is eyeing future technologies, with the expectation that industry will ferret them out.
“We don’t want to invest all of our research-and-development dollars into the biggest, baddest armed aerial scout and not have anything left over for future vertical lift,” Weiger said. “That’s why we’re talking about taking an appetite suppressant there [with armed aerial scout] so we can get this done.”
The Army’s bitter medicine bodes ill for a demonstration of off-the-shelf technologies expected sometime in the summer. The effort to fund a ready-made, affordable replacement for the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior may be ultimately sacrificed in the interest of broader technological leaps, Army aviation leaders have hinted.
“We don’t want it at a higher cost; we want it at a cost that’s affordable,” Crutchfield said. “If that means taking an appetite suppressant or tradeoffs, that’s what I’m willing to tell the acquisition community.”
Nearly every helicopter the Army flies has become a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together over decades. New computer systems, weapons and sensors, not to mention heavy armor upgrades, have been bolted on and crammed in over a decade of combat.
When 2040 rolls around, everything that can be bolted on or upgraded in the existing designs will have been done, Crosby said.
“You can rebuild them only so many times until at some point we’ve got to get to that new capability,” he said. “We can’t focus on balancing our checkbook today and not think about … the long term. We have to continue our investments in science and technology towards replacement.”
The Kiowa Warrior is racing toward the end of its operational life in 2025, but has the best chance of replacement before the 2030 deadline for future vertical lift. The planned demonstration of off-the-shelf platforms could take care of the Army’s armed scout woes.
Safety for troops is a major reason for the need to replace current helicopter technologies. In the wars of the last decade, casualties from rotorcraft far outweigh those from fixed-wing aircraft. Existing designs are slow and vulnerable to ground fire.
Some members of Congress recently jumped on board the modernization train. A group of six lawmakers who call themselves the Army Aviation Caucus sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in February asking that he carve out funding for development of new helicopters.
“Performance shortfalls of the current fleet have necessitated employment of rotorcraft at their design limits, or the use of multiple or larger aircraft to do the mission of one, with an increase in operational cost and vulnerability,” the letter reads. “The need to develop and flight validate rotorcraft technologies to increase speed, range, payload, survivability and reduced life cycle costs … is clear and is recognized by both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.”
The letter goes on to say it is “imperative” that a plan be put in place to “provide a firm basis ... to assess the out year funding necessary to address these needs” and allow industry an opportunity to begin research and development.
The timeline for getting the procurement cogs rolling is running down, though, even for the aircraft that have not been as egregiously neglected since their introduction such as the Kiowa, Weiger said. By 2037, the CH-47 Chinook will have become outdated, followed closely by the AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Blackhawk in 2040.
Taking into account the Defense Department’s protracted acquisitions process, the Army needs to invest soon in development of a replacement aircraft to keep up with its aging fleet, said Weiger.
Crutchfield wants to see a quantum leap in capabilities, in a new-build aircraft, by 2030.
“I don’t believe that the future vertical lift platform that we produce can start working at the margins,” Crutchfield said at an Association of the United States Army aviation conference in January.
Some in industry are skeptical that Future Vertical Lift will mature into a full-blown acquisitions program, given the Army’s acquisition history.
“If the past is any example, the future doesn’t look good,” said Michael Hirschberg, executive director of American Helicopter Society International. “There are no new-start vertical takeoff and lift programs of record. Science and technology budgets have been starved and development of the next-generation vertical lift platform has atrophied.”