Companies Await Decision on Joint Multi-Role Helicopter Program
Helicopter manufacturers are on pins and needles as the Army considers how it will move forward with a science and technology program to develop and fly a high-speed rotorcraft demonstrator.
The four contenders of the joint multi-role program — Bell Helicopter, Karem Aircraft, AVX Aircraft and a Boeing-Sikorsky team — have briefed the Army on their designs, said Dan Bailey, the Army’s JMR program director. However, the Defense Department does not have enough money to fund flight testing for all companies’ aircraft, and it will have to scale back the program at the end of this month.
“Our government team is in the process of sorting through all that information to look for the best return on our investment,” he said during a July 1 panel at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While Bailey said the program must shrink to meet financial constraints, he insisted that the decision was not a downselect that would result in competitors being completely cut from the program.
Instead, he characterized it as a “de-scope.”
"We will certainly at the end of the day, I believe, have opportunities for every one of the four vendors that we would like to continue at some level,” he said.
The Army intends the joint multi-role technology demonstrator program to transition into the future vertical lift program of record, an acquisition vehicle for a new generation of rotorcraft to replace its current fleet. The service plans to field in the mid-2030s a medium-lift version to take over the attack and utility missions of the UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache.
Last year, the Army awarded cost-sharing agreements to Bell, AVX, Karem and Boeing-Sikorsky. Each of the four competitors have been granted about $6.5 million through the end of June to help fund their designs, Bailey said. The service will decide this month how it will divide funding among the companies and restart the program in August.
"All we have to do is tell them what we want to continue with," he said. "If it’s the scope that we have in place today, then basically, we just turn the money back on. We continue to fund, and they continue to march. If it's something less than the full scope, then we'll have to do some negotiations with them to reshape the investment agreement."
JMR proposals are split between Bell and Karem’s tiltrotor designs and coaxial compound helicopters from AVX and Boeing-Sikorsky.
The Defense Department may be able to take as many as three aircraft to flight demonstrations in 2017, he said. “If we can't invest in any particular [company] fully to flight test, and they determine that they would continue to invest in that” then all four aircraft could fly.
Bailey said the Army is evaluating the companies’ proposals using five criteria: how much a design advances the services’ science and technology goals; whether the design meets performance specifications; how well the demonstrator validates those specifications; whether the competitor has executed their designs on schedule; and whether the company has the skills and competency to carry out a flight demonstration.
Although sequestration is likely to come back into play in fiscal year 2016, Bailey maintained that the JMR program was not in danger of cancelation. He pointed to the service’s support of research-and-development programs as evidence that it would remain safe.
"From a science and technology perspective, I have full confidence that we are not at risk,” he said. “I don’t have any contingency [plan] because I do not feel at risk that the JMR-TD will lose its resources.”
Executives from all four competing companies said the program invigorates the industrial base, which has not designed a new rotorcraft since the V-22 was developed in the 1980s.
All of the competitors are likely spending above the cost-sharing requirements requested by the Army, said Patrick Donnelly, one of Boeing-Sikorsky’s program directors.
The FVL-medium competition is especially important to Boeing and Sikorsky, as the original manufacturers of the Apache and Black Hawk, respectively. Gaining an FVL contract down the road would allow them to keep their production lines going after the end of the UH-60 and AH-64 programs, Donnelly said. "As we transition [to FVL], certainly it would be a significant continuation of that industrial base, not only for the [original equipment manufacturers] themselves but the whole supply base.”
JMR also is vital for teaching young engineers how to design and build an aircraft from the ground up, Donnelly said. “We’ve been very conscious to establish a team where 40 percent of the team has less than 10 years experience in the industry.”
Army aviation will not be able to accomplish its future missions without a large boost to the speed and range of its rotorcraft fleet, said Bob Hastings, Bell Helicopter’s senior vice president of communications and government affairs. If the Army tries “to do very different missions in the future with aircraft designed long ago, it will be incremental improvements at best.”
With other countries moving ahead with rotorcraft designs, the United States is at risk of being left behind, said Ben Tigner, Karem’s JMR program manager. “We’ve been doing incremental improvements for a long time. We slowly are risking the ability to generate revolutionary steps in favor of evolutionary steps.”