Next Helos: The US Army's Future Vertical Lift program would replace its Black Hawk and Apache helicopters. (US Army)
WASHINGTON — The initial down-select for the technology demonstrator phase of the US Army’s ambitious Joint Multi-Role (JMR) helicopter program has missed its original July deadline, and Army officials are now saying they’ll inform industry teams about who is moving forward sometime this month.
The Army said on Friday that it will gather the four industry teams working on the JMR program in “late August or early September” to discuss the way forward on the program. But an official added that the down-select to two competitors from the current four will have already been made by time the big sit down with industry takes place.
Program manager Dan Bailey said the meeting will “showcase the teams and technologies selected for the air vehicle demonstration” while further discussing how this technology demonstration phase fits into the larger Future Vertical Lift program.
Still, Army officials, including Bailey, have long sounded confident that the down-select would happen in July.
Overall, the change likely will not prove to be overly significant, as long as it is limited. The service wants to begin flying demonstrators in 2017 and is looking at the mid-2030s for operational use of the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, of which the JMR is the initial technology development phase.
But Army officials could not offer a reason for the slight slippage in the schedule.
The service has pre-sequestration plans to spend about $350 million on the JMR program through fiscal 2019.
Speaking July 1 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Bailey said he didn’t see the return of sequestration in fiscal 2016 as a huge impediment to the program due to the fact that Pentagon officials have said it is such a critical part of the Army’s plans for the future.
“I have full confidence we are not at risk,” he said while sitting alongside representatives from the companies competing for the work. “I don’t have many contingencies because I do not feel at risk that the JMR-TD will lose its resources.”
The technologies that the FVL is being designed to replace: Cold War-era Black Hawk and Apache attack helicopters that are not getting any younger. “When you think about the future in urban areas we’re going to be operating in, vertical lift is going to be absolutely essential,” Bailey said.
In a sign of movement on the program, however, on July 11 the team of Boeing and Sikorsky was selected by the Army to help develop the Joint Common Architecture (JCA) standard for the JMR program.
The JCA is considered the “‘digital backbone’ through which mission systems will be integrated into the FVL system’s design,” Samir Mehta, president of Sikorsky Defense Systems & Services, said in a statement.
The Sikorsky-Boeing team has also submitted its Defiant aircraft — based on Sikorsky’s X2 rotorcraft design that features counter-rotating coaxial main rotors and a pusher propeller — to the Army in consideration for the program.
In 2013, the Army awarded development contracts worth $6.5 million each to Bell, AVX, Karem and Boeing-Sikorsky to work on the technology demonstration program.
While the coming selection will likely eliminate two of the four teams, Bailey has for months insisted that the door will remain open to competition and the Army may very well choose technologies from a variety of companies to come up with a design that it thinks will be effective for the missions it envisions.
“We will certainly ... have opportunities for every one of the four vendors that we would like to continue at some level,” he said.
Still, given the 2017 demonstration date and the budget limitations that the Pentagon is operating under, “we’re at a critical point in the schedule. I would love to take all four [contractors] forward, but financially we do not have the resources to allow us to do that.”
When it comes to dividing up the funding among the winners — and then potentially any other technology that the service wants to include on the aircraft — “all we have to do is tell them what we want to continue with,” he said.
“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.” ■