For Army Aviation Programs, No News Is Bad News
The biggest aviation news to come out of the Association of the U.S. Army annual conference was that there wasn’t much of it.
With no decision on whether to press on with an Armed Aerial Scout competition to replace the Kiowa Warrior, the Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation decided not to host a press conference this year. There simply wasn’t anything to announce, Maj. Gen. William T. Crosby, the office's top official, told National Defense.
Budget issues and the possibility of sequestration are keeping the office from knowing whether it can move forward with AAS, he said. "Once the president submits his budget, the Army will have to align the budget and force structure."
Heidi Shyu, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, said at AUSA that further delays or outright cancellation of AAS are possibilities.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno indicated during a September House Armed Services Committee hearing that sequestration in 2014 would leave the service unable to proceed with an AAS program.
Others also doubt an armed aerial scout competition will ever be officially greenlighted. One industry insider said he expected the Army would let AAS peter out without ever announcing a cancelation.
This leaves helicopter manufacturers without any near-term Army aviation acquisition programs. A competition for Future Vertical Lift — a family of rotorcraft platforms that will replace much of the service’s current fleet — is still years into the future, leaving only the joint multi-role demonstrator initiative offering financial incentives for companies to develop new rotorcraft technology.
Earlier this month, the Army awarded joint multi-role demonstrator technology investment agreements to Boeing-Sikorsky, Bell-Lockheed, and two small, relatively unknown contractors: AVX Aircraft Co. and Karem Aircraft Inc. The teams will work on design and risk reduction until mid-2014, when the Army will select two competitors to build demonstrator aircraft to fly in 2017.
The Boeing-Sikorsky team on Oct. 21 unveiled the name of their joint entry for the JMR demonstrator program: the Defiant. The companies are offering a compound helicopter based on Sikorsky’s X-2 demonstrator, which has coaxial rotors and a pusher propeller at the rear.
"We've already uncovered key technologies and improvements to existing technologies that neither company could have captured on its own,” said Sam Mehta, president of Sikorsky Military Systems.
The companies have set up a 70-person team in Connecticut to work together developing the blades, transmission, fuselage and other systems on the aircraft, said Doug Shidler, Sikorsky’s director of the program.
Otherwise, the team has been closed-lipped on how its demonstrator will differ from the X-2, citing competitive concerns.
The Bell Helicopter-Lockheed Martin team took the opposite approach by showcasing a full-scale mockup of their tilt-rotor submission, the V280 Valor, in the AUSA exhibit hall. The company has also shown the Valor at the Maneuver Center of Excellence in Fort Benning, Ga., to drum up excitement for the aircraft.
Bell officials believe the Valor could be ready for fielding before 2035, the proposed initial operational capability of the future vertical lift medium variant, said CEO John Garrison.
“There are some things we're working on, but in general we believe the technical risk of this platform is relatively low," he said. The team is working on increasing the aircraft’s hover performance and driving down material costs in order to make the Valor more palatable to the Army.
The V280 is designed to go twice as fast and three times as far as the UH-60 Blackhawk and AH-64 Apaches in the fleet today, meaning it would, for example, be able to support Army aviation needs across Afghanistan with only two bases instead of eight, Garrison said. Flight hours may be more expensive with the Valor, but the aircraft will be more productive and cut down on infrastructure, he said.
Both of the smaller joint multi-role demonstrator competitors — Karem and AVX — did not host booths at the conference. AVX is submitting a compound helicopter design with coaxial rotors, and Karem is proposing a tilt-rotor aircraft.
What happens next with armed aerial scout is anyone’s guess.
Representatives for Sikorsky, the only company that has yet to fly its AAS offering, said the Army’s continual delays of that decision have been good news. Executives are crossing their fingers that the Army announces a competition after its S-97 Raider makes its first flight in 2014.
“Imagine in 2015, when we have a Raider flying, and they want to do a competition in 2016 and we have a mission package on a Raider. We will love to park against anyone that wants to compete against us in 2016 with our Raider with a mission package," said Steve Engebretson, director of advanced military programs.
Sikorsky showcased a retooled mockup of the Raider on the AUSA exhibition floor. That aircraft is also based on the X-2 demonstrator, which was used as the basis for the Defiant design.
Other AAS contenders are EADS, Boeing, AgustaWestland and Bell, all of which flew aircraft during an Army-hosted demonstration in October 2012.
Boeing was pleased with the performance of its AH-6 Little Bird at that demonstration, said Dave Koopersmith, the company’s vice president of attack helicopters.
“But we frankly understand the tremendous pressure on budgets and Army Aviation, and we are not waiting” on a decision on armed aerial scout to implement our strategy, he added. The company is pursuing other sales avenues, including international purchases, developing upgrades for special operator users and creating an unmanned version.
As the original manufacturer of the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, Bell is proceeding with upgrades to the Kiowa’s cockpit and sensors, which converts “D” models into “F” models for about $5 million per aircraft. The Army is the lead systems integrator on that initiative.
“The OH-58 is the baseline solution,” Garrison said. “The Kiowa Warrior, from an affordability standpoint, is the most affordable solution.”
EADS North America put all of its eggs into armed aerial scout, pulling out of the JMR demonstrator program to focus its resources on its proposed aircraft, the AAS-72X.