Pentagon Moves Closer To Deciding Future Helicopter Technology
March 6 will be a big day for helicopter OEMs and could shape the future of the industry for decades to come. Phase One proposals are due into the Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate by tomorrow that likely will lead to the construction of Joint Multi-Role demonstration aircraft (JMR TD) that could fly as early as 2017 and lead to the start of production aircraft between 2025 and 2030.
The program is envisioned to field replacements for models that are currently the backbone of U.S. military aviation, including the AH-1Z Cobra and AH-64D Apache gunships, CH-47F Chinook, OH-58D Kiowa, UH-60M Black Hawk and the UH-1Y Huey.
At this stage, conventional, compound and tiltrotor technologies are in the mix of considerations, although the Army’s desire for increased, speed, range and payload would seem to rule out conventional designs. JMR supports the Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative to create the next generation of vertical lift utility and attack aircraft. This is the first proposed large-scale, non-incremental fleet modernization of military helicopters since the Bell UH-1 was introduced in the 1960s, and the implications for technology trickle-down to the civil market loom large, given the pattern of military rotorcraft designs leading the way for civil follow-on products.
The Army’s Aviation Applied Technology Directorate at Fort Eustis, Va., awarded contracts in 2011 to four companies–Boeing, Sikorsky, a Bell-Boeing team and AVX Aircraft–to conduct JMR configuration and trades analysis studies. While specific performance goals were not set, in the past the Army has indicated it was looking for an aircraft with a speed greater than 170 knots, a range of at least 497 nm, and the ability to meet the 6,000 foot msl/95 degree F high/hot requirements.
Late last month, Sikorsky partnered with Boeing to propose its X2 coaxial/compound technology. Sikorsky’s X2 achieved a forward speed of 253 knots TAS in 2010. Boeing is currently partnered with Bell on the Marine Corps/Navy/Air Force V-22 tiltrotor. Under the arrangement, announced February 28, Sikorsky is developing the aircraft technology under Phase 1 that addressed the technical risk of developing an FVL medium-class, vertical-takeoff and landing air vehicle that “greatly surpasses” the performance and reliability of current helicopters. Boeing will act as the systems integrator during Phase 2, which is the missions systems demonstration program. The Army expects to spend $200 million on two Phase 1 entries.
“Our companies are fully committed to the long-term nature of the Future Vertical Lift initiative, and we will contribute equally in terms of capital, technological capability and risk on our path to meeting the Army’s requirements,” said Leanne Caret, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s vertical lift division.
In 2011 Sikorsky announced that it and suppliers would build and self-fund two S-97 Raider aircraft for the Army’s then-anticipated Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) competition, with Sikorsky picking up an estimated 75 percent of the development costs. The S-97 is an 11,000-pound utility/attack compound helicopter based on X2 technology and will be powered by the General Electric CT7-8 engine. Top speed is estimated at 240 knots and first flight could come as early as 2014. Last October the Army indicated its preference to use existing airframes for the AAS mission. While declining to provide specific details, Sikorsky’s proposal for JMR is widely expected to be a larger version of this aircraft.
Sikorsky and Boeing last partnered on the RAH-66 Comanche scout/attack helicopter program, cancelled in 2004.
Bell’s Tiltrotor Plans
Boeing’s decision to align with Sikorsky was widely seen as at least a symbolic setback for Bell. However, Bell continues to look to leverage its experience with the V-22 into JMR success.
“We made the strategic decision to lead the development effort for the next generation of tiltrotor technology for the JMR and ultimately the FVL program,” Bell CEO John Garrison told AIN. “Tiltrotor is the technology of the future for the Army when you look at the capabilities including speed, range and payload. We think we are in a pretty good position to be part of this initial proposal and to be eventually selected for two demonstrator aircraft,” Garrison said. He hinted that Bell will bring partners to the table.
“We are having significant conversations with many industry participants and we are going to put forth the best minds with the best capabilities in the industry. At the right time we will talk about who our partners are and what they are doing,” he said.
A hint of what Bell might propose emerged earlier this year with a revelation of approval for a 2011 patent application it filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) for an elongated tiltrotor with a twin T-tail assembly with an aft cargo door.
AVX Technologies also is expected to submit a Phase 1 proposal that features its previously disclosed design that features coaxial main rotors and twin ducted fans attached to the tailboom.
The potential spoils from JMR are huge. In 2011, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the program at $57 billion.