Four bidding contractors likely will be cut to two in July in the US Army's effort to replace its Apache and Black Hawk helicopters. Above: the AVX. (AVX)
X-2 demonstrator / Sikorsky Aircraft
Bell V-280 Valor helicopter / Bell Helicopter
WASHINGTON — In July, the US Army will make its first big decision on how to proceed with the ambitious, decades-long developmental project to replace up to 4,000 Apache and Black Hawk helicopters by the mid-2030s.
Four contractors are working on demonstrator and technology projects under the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) program, which will eventually develop the baseline requirements for the $100 billion Future Vertical Lift (FVL) effort.
The teams will submit their work to the Army in June for evaluation, after which the number of competitors will likely be whittled to two that will build actual demonstrator aircraft that will fly from 2017 to 2019.
After the flight tests and technology development, JMR will go away, and the FVL program will kick off with a request for proposals open to all comers who think they can meet the specifications developed under the JMR program.
Until then, teams led by Bell Helicopter, a partnership between Sikorsky Aircraft and Boeing, AVX Aircraft, and Karem Aircraft are working to make it past the July make-or-break point.
“They’re doing initial design work, and we’re starting to get into component-level preliminary design reviews,” said Dan Bailey, head of the Army’s JMR/FVL programs. “They’re designing a conceptual aircraft that is a kind of ‘snap the chalk line’ view of what the user requirements might be in the future.
“But they’re also designing a demonstrator aircraft that will demonstrate the enabling technologies that will be resident on the conceptual design.”
This initial phase is focused on developing a design that future mission sets and other technologies will be plugged into, though what the FVL will look like in two decades is almost completely up in the air.
Both the Sikorsky-Boeing team and AVX are developing plans for coaxial-rotor technologies, while the teams led by Bell and Karem have said they are developing tilt-rotor designs.
Specifications include a design that would be capable of performing both medium utility and attack missions, with a 230-knot cruising speed, and of hovering at 6,000 feet in 95-degree temperatures.
Bailey said the program is moving slowly by design, partly due to lessons learned from failures of ambitious programs such as Future Combat Systems, which wrote complex requirements documents that couldn’t possibly be met within the budgets and timelines that leaders established. The program was later canceled.
He also stressed the demonstrators taking to the air in 2017 “won’t be the FVL solution — they’re demonstrators, they’re X-planes.
“They won’t have production-representative engines, they won’t have real mission systems architecture, and communications at the bare minimum, but they’ll demonstrate some key technologies,” he said.
In other words, the current phase is envisioned as a venue for industry to show off technologies that would enable Army rotary-wing aviation to take the next leap forward in speed, lift, protection and interoperability.
While the service is taking a slow approach, the idea has been percolating for decades. Bruce Tenney, chief of advanced design at the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, this year told the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank here that “the FVL initiative is about the fourth one of these that we’ve tried over the past 15 years.”
A series of studies was kicked off in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the Army really started looking at joint heavy lift, he said.
“My team spends a lot of time engaged with the vendors,” Bailey told Defense News, “and we’re learning collectively. We’re not building prototypes of the FVL solution, so we’re not trying to build the aircraft that will eventually be selected [by 2019], as we don’t yet know what the full FVL requirements are.
“We’re trying to inform ourselves through the [science and technology] program to make the decisions associated with FVL.”
The Pentagon requested a relatively modest $52 million in the fiscal 2015 budget to fund the JMR demonstrator program.
But Bailey said the Army has “put technology investment agreements in place with all four vendors for the entire scope of the program, all the way through fiscal year ’19, so the work that we’re doing now on that is just the first phase of what’s been negotiated.”
While the four competitors are working on the aircraft’s design, other industry teams are working on a digital backbone that will allow mission systems to be plugged into the aircraft.
A contract for the joint common architecture standard will be awarded in July for more lab-based testing.
The results will go into the request for proposals to be issued in 2019. ■