AUSA hosts the Army Aviation Symposium this week, which gives me the perfect excuse to ask one of my favorite questions: What will it take to get US military helicopter technology out of its long and barren rut?
I believe the last all-new aircraft designed, built and fielded for the US military was the UH-60A Black Hawk. The Army spends about $3 billion a year on helicopters, but all of that money pays for derivatives of technology originally deployed between 30 and 50 years ago, or militarized versions of civil helicopters.Arguably no other sector of advanced US military technology fighters, airlifters, UAVs, ships, fighting vehicles, missiles, satellites, etc has tolerated a longer and deeper drought of deployable innovation.
Think about it: the last all-new aircraft designed for the army was the Sikorsky/Boeing RAH-66 Comanche, and that program was cancelled in 2004 after only two prototypes were built.
The Comanche would have been the first helicopter to introduce stealth design characteristics, but the fundamental limitations of helicopter performance speed, range and payload have been stuck in a paralyzing rut since the late-1960s.
Of course, there are a few programs in the very early stages of concept design that may offer a solution, but each faces an agonizing and perilous path to delivering a finished product sometime after 2015. Namely, they are the payload-limit-busting Joint Heavy Lift (JHL) aircraft (post-2015) and the speed-barrier-busting Joint Multi-Role (JMR) aircraft (post-2020).Elements within the army want to launch an X-Plane flyoff for JHL starting in 2010, but that project will face intense competitive pressure. The alternatives come from the USAF, and they range from the futuristic AJACS concept to near-off-the-shelf derivatives of the C-17, A400M or C-130J.
Requirements and technologies for JMR will continue to coalesce over the next five years or so. But the defense industry is already jockeying to be in competitive position. Sikorsky plans to fly the speedy X2 demonstrator this year (the original first flight date was postponed in December). Boeing is working with Piasecki on the X-49 compound Black Hawk. Boeings real interest is to apply the technology to the AH-64 Apache, either as a JMR-lite if the army starts pinching its pennies, or as a testbed for an all-new platform.Another, more near-term, idea is to deploy the technology on the H-1 Cobra, to serve as an armed escort for the US Marine Corps MV-22 fleet. Sikorskys X-2 will likely also battle for the contract if this requirement emerges over the next few years.
The ground for greater leaps in technical sophistication is being prepared by DARPA, which is supporting BellBoeings evolving concept for a folding tiltrotor or tilting stop-rotor. Boeing also is working with DARPA to develop the concept for a new hybrid aircraft design called Rotor Disk.-- Stephen Trimble