Bumpy Ride Ahead for Military's Future Helicopter Program

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Pentagon's plan to acquire a new family of helicopters once again is up in the air. The military intends to continue to fund rotary-wing research and testing programs, officials said, but it cannot yet predict if or when it will have funds to buy new aircraft to replace the current fleet.

Like every other modernization program in the Defense Department, new helicopters have to compete for funding within a pool of shrinking dollars. Officials said the military services are having to trade off new weapon systems to fund their payroll.

"The budget environment is very difficult," said Jose M. Gonzalez, deputy director of land warfare, munitions and tactical warfare systems at the Defense Department.

The helicopter modernization effort known as "future vertical lift" got under way in 2009. The goal is to design and build a family of helicopters that would replace the current fleet of Black Hawks, Apaches and Chinooks by 2030. Analysts have estimated the program could be worth up to $100 billion.

The project has "moved to the right over the years," but the Pentagon is committed to keeping it alive, Gonzalez said June 4 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Helicopter manufacturers have regarded the future vertical lift project, or FVL, as one of the few remaining opportunities in the military rotorcraft market. But the reality for contractors is that while FVL appears to have heavy backing from the Pentagon leadership, it does not have much money in the Defense Department's five-year spending plan.

Gonzalez said the military services are fighting to protect the research dollars in their budgets for the "joint multirole rotorcraft" technology demonstration, which is the first phase of FVL.

Aircraft manufacturers, which are pouring corporate research dollars into the program, want assurances that there will be production contracts at the end of the road that would justify their investments. The Army has said it will fund two prototypes and flight tests that are scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2017.

The Army in 2013 awarded technology "investment agreements" to four companies under the JMR program: Bell Helicopter, Sikorsky Aircraft Co., AVX Aircraft Co. and Karem Aircraft Inc.

Given the uncertainty about future budgets,officials have warned, purchases of new equipment could be delayed. "We are doing everything we can to be as transparent as possible," Gonzalez told an industry executive who asked about the potential risks for contractors that are investing in rotorcraft technology.

Gonzalez said thejoint multirole rotorcraft, or JMR, technology demonstration might not lead to the procurement of new aircraft within the desired timeline, but could "feed alternatives other than a new-start program ... such as major upgrades or changes in con-ops [concept of operations]." Technologies such as variable speed transmissions or lightweight materials could transition to FVL or other systems.

"The work we are doing in analysis and developing upfront requirements hopefully will put us in a better position when the services have resources" to fund acquisitions of new aircraft, said Gonzalez.

He insisted that FVL is a high priority. "We have leadership attention on rotary wing. We have a strategic plan. We have government and industry working together in a vertical lift consortium," he said. "We have a very hungry, competitive industry that is self investing and pushing innovation."

One of the motivators of FVL is the promise that it could save the military billions of dollars in maintenance and support costs by consolidating multiple makes and models into fewer, more standardized aircraft.

The military today has about 6,600 helicopters of 25 different designs. "We are not building a one-size-fits-all helicopter," Gonzalez cautioned. The intent is to design a family of aircraft of different sizes, with common information systems and a standard architecture.

Interoperability among the branches of the military is central to FVL, said Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Gary L. Thomas, deputy director of force management, application and support at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We have capabilities from different services but we can't share information," he said at the CSIS forum. "Systems don't talk to each other because they weren't made by the same manufacturer." The FVL gives the Pentagon an opportunity to eliminate stovepipes, he said.

Joint-service aircraft can be a sore subject at the Pentagon, given the troubled experience of the F-35 joint strike fighter. But Thomas defended the decision to make FVL a joint program. "There will be bumps on the road, it is painful, and there are lessons learned [from F-35] we can capture," he said. The important point about FVL, he said, is that it is trying to do away with the "platform-centric" thinking of traditional Pentagon programs. "We have to think about both platforms and mission systems. This is not how we have done vertical lift in the past."

Long-term logistics support is another major consideration in FVL, said Army Col. Kevin J. Christensen, Joint Staff director of force management, application and support. Each helicopter model in the fleet today has its own line of supply. "We need commonality," he said. Most people worry about the cost of buying new aircraft, "but the real value of FVL may be in how we affect operations and support cost, the cost of ownership," he said. "It could be hundreds of billions of dollars worth of savings."

Industry analysts are watching FVL as a bellwether of the military aviation market. "If the FVL program survives — and that’s a valid question — it will have a huge impact on the Big Three: Boeing, Sikorsky and Textron," analyst Roman Schweizer of Guggenheim Securities wrote June 4 in a note to investors. He noted that Textron's Bell Helicopter has put together a powerful team that includes

Lockheed Martin, General Electric, Spirit Aerospace, Eaton, GKN, Moog and others. "As currently envisioned, we think the outcome of the FVL program could have a meaningful impact on the industry," he said. The Big Three will be competing with "pesky upstarts" AVX Aircraft, which was founded by Bell Helicopter expatriates, and Karem Aircraft, which is run by Abe Karem, the developer the Predator, Schweizer noted. "AVX is offering a concept that is very similar to Sikorsky-Boeing’s coaxial rotor design, a derivative of the Sikorsky-funded prototype X-2 helicopter." Karem is proposing a tiltrotor aircraft.

"We would have to favor the big companies for a major award like this," Schweizer said. "If AVX or Karem pull off an upset, we would expect them to partner with a larger manufacturer, giving the losing primes a way back into the program." He noted the Army budgeted about $230 million to fund two demonstrators.  

Christensen said the Pentagon is aware of the industrial-base implications of FVL decisions. A study of the helicopter industry is under way, he said. "We have a strong concern about the rotorcraft industrial base."

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing, Research and Development, Land Forces

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