NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Companies that manufacture the U.S. Army’s helicopter fleet are devising plans to modernize the aircraft — now reaching 40 years old — in order to keep them flying for decades more.
The Army plans to develop and field two future vertical lift aircraft by the early 2030s — a Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft and a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft. But officials have acknowledged the current fleet, which took shape in the 1980s, will need to stick around even after the transition is well underway.
“The Apache, the Black Hawk, is going to be around for the next 30 to 40 years,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told reporters at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference, which took place in late April.
Army officials also confirmed that the CH-47 Chinook could end up flying for 100 years before retiring around 2060.
Even so, McConville said the current fleet will eventually end up on display stands at Army aviation headquarters, much like the UH-1 Huey, the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior and the AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter.
There’s not much clarity on when the Army will phase out aircraft in the current fleet, how that would happen and what number of new aircraft will replace older ones.
The Army’s program executive officer for aviation, Maj. Gen. Robert Barrie, told Defense News in an interview at the AAAA event that he is hesitant to put timelines on how long the current fleet would continue to be a part of the fighting force.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” he said. “Every day it’s operating, we owe it to our soldiers for it to be relevant and ready to go, and that’s where we’re focused.”
The Army is in the midst of working an aviation force design update, Maj. Gen. Mac McCurry, the Army Aviation Center of Excellence commander, told Defense News in an interview at AAAA. “We’re working on the allocation, the basis of issue, probably not directly one-for-one for a Black Hawk, with an increased capability. You probably don’t need the same amount in each formation. So we’re looking and doing the modeling and how many do you need.”
McCurry said the Army will have more fidelity to make a decision on force structure once the future vertical lift programs get into engineering and manufacturing development phases; that’s when the service can see how the new aircraft perform in developmental and operational testing compared to the roles and missions the Army wants for the systems.
“Then we will probably be able to more readily optimize the fleets and see those kinds of downward curves on the platforms we have today,” he added.
Upgrades for existing aircraft
Some of the current fleet is quite young based on when the last airframes were built along with recent upgrades, McCurry argued. The Apache fleet was an older one, but now it’s considered younger because the most recent variant and upgrade plans are newer, he explained.
The UH-60 fleet is about 16 years old on average, and the Chinook fleet is about 9 years old for a large number of aircraft.
“When I look at the actual flight hours on the platforms, they’re fairly young,” McCurry said.
The Army right now, according to Barrie, is focused on ensuring the current fleet is safe and maintains a baseline capability. Baseline capabilities include making all aircraft in the fleet digital to allow for upgrades, he explained, and increasing the processing power within the aircraft.
And modernizing the current fleet to have the same modular, open-system architecture to continue to import capability and upgrades is going to be key.
The service is also injecting more funding in its fiscal 2024 budget for survivability equipment as adversaries advance capabilities and tactics, Barrie noted.
Radio and communication modifications are also taking place, including improvements to Link 16 technolgoy, which connects aircraft with ground forces.
Furthermore, both the Black Hawk and Apache helicopters are due to receive a new, next-generation engine beginning in the next few years, albeit several years delayed.
Apache Echo-models are receiving the latest upgrade — the V6 — which was first fielded to units in 2021.
Keeping up with the future fleet
At recent trade shows, defense contractor Boeing has begun to showcase what it can do for the Apache beyond its latest version.
“It levels things up, embraces, incorporates new transformation technology, and then you get performance gains,” Jenny Walker, who is in business development for Boeing’s Apache program, told reporters at the AAAA event.
The Apache model on display featured an additional wing pylon, joining the two already there on the current version, to provide additional weapons in a greater variety onboard. The company also showed a concept for a directed-energy capability on one of the pylons.
Adding additional payloads to the aircraft, Walker said, is made possible through the Improved Turbine Engine Program, or ITEP, engine, which will be integrated into Apache helos in the coming years, as well as drivetrain and tail-rotor improvements that will allow the aircraft to fly 135 nautical miles to an objective and stay there for an hour or more and return. The current Apache would likely be able to stay out at the objective for roughly 30 minutes, she added.
Lockheed Martin has also designed a next-generation turret for the Apache’s sensors that help it see and target threats. The turret will enable easier upgrades down the road but also reduces maintenance time and has a faster slew capability for pilots to keep eyes on targets and accurately fire weapons. The turret will go into a yearlong soldier evaluation this month.
Lockheed’s Sikorsky is prioritizing ensuring the Black Hawk’s compatibility to operate alongside the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft, Paul Lemmo, the subsidiary’s president, said in an interview at AAAA.
The company wants to “ensure they can interoperate — doesn’t mean they have to be the same, but they should be operating on the same open-system standard,” he said.
The company is also looking at the potential application of digital vehicle controls for the aircraft that would enable the insertion of capabilities like Sikorsky’s Matrix, an autonomy system that would not take over for pilots entirely but would offload some of the work so they can focus on the mission. The system will also increase safety by autonomously avoiding accidents like midair collisions and flying through degraded visual environments.
While the Chinook F-model Block II is not yet fielded to the active force, it will provide additional lift capability. The original plan was to swap out the rotor blades with new advanced ones, but trouble with blade stall and vibration in testing led the Army to cancel the effort a year ago.
Barrie said the advanced rotor blade’s technical issues, paired with the cost of the blade, remains “fundamentally unchanged,” but the Army has continued with Block II development and learned that even with the older blades the system is meeting performance requirements.
“I have the paddles out with the U.S. Army trying to keep that patient alive,” Boeing’s vice president and H-47 program manager, Ken Eland, said at AAAA about the advanced rotor blades. “I would like to see that press forward. There’s some challenges we’re working through with them timing-wise, but we’re interested in trying to keep it on life support.”
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.