BRUSSELS — While the American military is forging ahead with a new helicopter replacement program, Europe is lagging behind in exploiting the potential of its helicopter sector, according to the European Helicopter Association, the voice of the majority of helicopter operators in Europe.
The U.S. Army is working toward its Future Vertical Lift, and this initiative is well underway, with the first prototypes already built for the future helo.
In an effort to keep pace with the U.S., NATO set up a group of experts to run a two-year program meant to identify, analyze, assess and document advanced rotorcraft technologies.
The Industrial Advisory Group, or NIAG — a high-level consultative and advisory body of senior industrialists from NATO member countries — is due to deliver its conclusions next year.
But what can be expected from this ambitious plan?
A NATO official told Defense News: "Many allies are due to refurbish or retire their current helicopter fleets in the 2025-2030 time frame. As the cost of technology rises, nations are consolidating the number of different aircraft types. Government- and industry-funded research shows that flight performance can be increased. Compound helicopter and tiltrotor systems show an increased range and speed compared to traditional helicopters.
"As new operational requirements are introduced, allies will need to ensure that new systems are interoperable with the legacy fleet."
The Brussels-based official noted that "a team of experts" are to set a road map for the alliance to develop next-generation vertical lift capabilities, which has an in-service deadline of about 2035.
"This work is informed through direct interaction with the NATO Industrial Advisory Group, which has also initiated a study group, commissioned by the Conference of National Armaments Directors. Their recommendations are expected in the spring of 2018," the official added.
In supporting the next-generation rotorcraft road map, the advisory group will, according to NATO, examine configuration changes that provide a "step change" in range, speed, endurance and payload combined.
The aim is to ensure by the mid-2020s, when partner nations decide on their future platform requirements, that there has been sufficient knowledge sharing and capability awareness to develop optimal configuration across all platforms and missions.
"As systems become more complex, consideration at the design stage becomes increasingly important. This requires an early identification of clear requirements with options set out that enable forces to choose the optimal solution for their mission requirements," a source at NATO offered. "The future operating environment requires the development of a new vertical lift platform unencumbered by the restrictions of traditionally designed rotorcraft, meaning the new platforms will need to perform unfettered by the limited physical perspectives of existing designs."
NIAG has reportedly concluded that a single main rotor is not the future. However, the future could be coaxial; or compounded with pusher props; or fans; or propellers; or advanced tilt rotors — whichever will deliver optimal configuration for future missions.
It's believed the program will lead to the development of a versatile medium-lift air vehicle in the FVL Family of Systems, capable of conducting assault, urban security, attack, maritime interdiction, medical evacuation, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, tactical resupply, direct action, noncombatant evacuation operations, and combat search and rescue operations in support of army and joint forces.
The recent use of rotary assets during operations has identified the need for each platform to provide a multitude of capabilities for each individual mission. Original platform requirements have often been disregarded in order to achieve mission success on the modern battlefield.
Jaime Arque, chair of the European Helicopter Association, says he is concerned at the "lack of interest" at the European Union level regarding the exploitation of helicopter operations and their integration into the intra-EU connectivity.
"The sole attention to commercial airline activity shows that the rotocraft industry has not been considered. Our sector employs over 100,000 people and helicopter operations have transformed many areas of our lives," Arque said. "Current U.S. modes of operations highlight the need for strong connectivity between rotorcraft and other means of transport."
Dan Bailey, a NATO program director and chair of its future rotorcraft capability team, is expected to provide an update on the alliance's next rotary fleet when he addresses "Combat Helicopter 2017," an international gathering for armed forces and industry, running from Oct. 17-19 in Krakow, Poland.