WASHINGTON — If all goes well, sometime around 2035, the children or grandchildren of today’s US Army aviators will begin strapping themselves into the cockpits of a brand-new fleet of helicopters.
Until then, today’s Apaches, Black Hawks, Chinooks and Kiowas will continue to carry the workload, with periodic upgrades, until the next generation of vertical lift comes on line.
Strides were made toward this goal in the first week of June as the Army awarded three companies technology development contracts to kick off the ambitious effort to add speed, lift capacity, hover time and lethality to the fleet.
On June 5 and June 6, Bell Helicopter, the team of Sikorsky-Boeing and AVX Aircraft Co., announced they had won contracts to begin work on the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) Phase 1 program. The companies have until September to submit design proposals that meet the mostly classified requirements about speed, lift and protection.
While no technology demonstrator aircraft to replace the Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk utility and AH-64 attack helicopters will be flown before 2017, the Army is expected to award contracts to replace as many as 2,000 to 4,000 of the birds by the mid-2030s in what it’s calling the Future Vertical Lift effort.
The Army has said that it will select two aircraft to be built and flown in 2017 during the demonstrator phase, which will cost the service’s Aviation Applied Technology Directorate about $213 million.
The latest effort at wholesale modernization and replacement of today’s iconic — but battle-weary — rotary-wing aircraft kicked off in January, when the Army released a Broad Area Announcement for the JMR technology development program.
At the time, EADS North America was considered a favorite to be shortlisted, but the company declined to participate, according to a May 29 letter that EADS CEO Sean O’Keefe sent to Heidi Shyu, the head of Army acquisition programs.
In pulling out, O’Keefe said, “We deeply regret the fiscal necessity to make this decision,” but that the government funding was inadequate to cover projected company development costs.
The company is instead focusing on the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) program, which may eventually replace the aging Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter, while continuing to develop its Eurocopter V3 demonstrator for commercial markets. The company could re-enter the full Future Vertical Lift competition once the technology development phase ends.
But JMR is a huge opportunity for participating companies. Bell Helicopter, maker of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, announced on June 5 that its V-280 Valor, a third-generation tilt-rotor design, was selected for the JMR technology development program “as a Category I proposal.”
In a statement, Bell said that a Category I proposal means that its design is a “well-conceived, scientifically or technically sound proposal pertinent to program goals and objectives with applicability to Army mission needs.”
While the Osprey and the Valor are tilt-rotor aircraft, the Army shouldn’t expect an upgraded version of the Marine Corps MV-22, a company spokesman said.
The Valor “uses transformational technology that significantly reduced complexity from previous generations of tilt rotor,” the spokesman emailed. The aircraft is “Army-centric” and a “clean sheet design” developed for operations at up to 6,000 feet at 95 degrees. It uses no parts from the V-22.
The Sikorsky and Boeing proposal will demonstrate the team’s X2 technology, which features counter-rotating coaxial main rotors, a pusher propeller and fly-by-wire system, and would reach speeds of 230 knots. The AVX offering also will be able to hit 230 knots, while Bell says that its helicopter demonstrator will be able to reach 280 knots.
The relative outlier in all this is Fort Worth, Texas-based AVX Aircraft, which was founded in 2005 by former Bell employees.
The company’s design features a coaxial rotor and ducted fan, along with a large rear ramp and retractable landing gear.
While the EADS decision not to compete for the technology development contract may surprise some, the company has quite a few pans in the fire.
Its LUH-72A Lakota program is embroiled in budgetary drama that saw the Army reduce its planned purchase of 31 helicopters in fiscal 2014 to 10. The company loudly protested on Capitol Hill, and on June 7, the House Appropriations defense subcommittee included an extra $135 million to buy back those 21 utility choppers. The Senate has yet to take up the bill.
The Army hasn’t decided whether to hold a competition for a new AAS or to continue modernizing the Kiowa.