ROME — As the commander of Italy’s Army aviation fleet, Maj. Gen. Andrea Di Stasio oversees a helicopter portfolio on the cusp of old and new.
Decision-makers in the country have been closely watching moves in Washington about remaking the U.S. Army’s fleet, itching to jump on the bandwagon with what some thought would be the next major accomplishment in propulsion technology.
Di Stasio spoke with Defense News about balancing the reliability of traditional rotorcraft technology with next-generation features that promise greater speed and maneuverability.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What does the future hold for helicopters?
The traditional helicopter has almost reached full maturity, which means there can be very few improvements in power and speed. So you either move toward coaxial rotors with pusher propellers or tiltrotors, or you stick with the “classic” helicopter, knowing that it has reached the limits of its performance.
I therefore see a future in which traditional helicopters fly alongside the new helicopters developed for the U.S. Future Vertical Lift program, NATO’s Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability program and the European Union’s Next Generation Fast Helicopter program.
This will mark a real doctrinal revolution, not just a simple technology upgrade. The main aim is increasing survivability on the battlefield, with speed an important factor. That will make helicopters better able to operate against enemies with well organized anti-air defenses in large-scale combat operations.
What technologies and capabilities will be key for the army of the future?
The essential technologies will be structural materials and know-how, for example, in rotors, engines and transmissions that allow increases in speed, autonomy, and the possibility to carry a large array of sensors and armaments. Helicopters must also be networked in a secure way, and active protection systems are needed to ensure the integrity of the helicopter and, consequently, the crew.
Open architecture can keep the helicopter price down, make the logistics sustainable and ensure the helicopter is reliable over time because it can be upgraded very quickly. It also needs to be able to interface with other systems or platforms that are built according to the same standards. I am referring to what the U.S. calls MOSA — or a modular, open-systems approach — which is a fundamental conceptual pillar to ensure the technological progress of the new helicopters.
We need standoff, fire-and-forget armaments so the helicopter can acquire over-the-horizon ground targets without exposing itself. An armed helicopter will have difficulty overcoming well-run air defenses up close. We already have such weapons on Italy’s A129 helicopters, and the U.S. is moving in this direction, having chosen the Spike NLOS to compensate for the limited-range Hellfire missile.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of coaxial helicopter and tiltrotor technology?
Given they are two completely different technologies, it is hard to compare them unless you look at the operational objectives they are expected to be used in. The U.S. has chosen the tiltrotor due to its new focus on the Pacific, as opposed to Europe and the Middle East. The tiltrotor currently has greater cruising speed and autonomy but greater size and less maneuverability.
If the priority is to transport passengers or material across greater distances in shorter times, its advantages are undoubted.
The choice made by the U.S. Army to purchase the Bell V-280 Valor is linked to the Indo-Pacific theater, where the U.S. envisages an increasing presence.
On the other hand the coaxial helicopter with propellers can perform sudden and fast maneuvers, albeit having less speed and autonomy than a tiltrotor in the same category.
In the future, both these platforms will enter service with NATO armed forces since both show, at least on paper or in preliminary trials, good performance. However, I would also say that no country can do without, at least for now, a fleet of reliable, traditional helicopters. The new technologies will increase performance but have not yet reached the maturity to be game changers for at least another 10 years.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.