Magazine article National Defense

Future Helicopter Technology Remains Up in the Air

Magazine article National Defense

Future Helicopter Technology Remains Up in the Air

Article excerpt

While jet fighters are in their fifth generation, the Army is still sputtering around in helicopter airframes that have changed little--if at all--in several decades.

What's worse, say Army aviation leaders, is that there is no new-start program of record for rotorcraft and the only- new platform introduced in the past quarter-century was the V-22 Osprey which is flown by the Marine Corps.

Despite budget cuts, Army aviation officials are pushing forward with plans to develop a radically new vertical-lift technology before the current fleet reaches the end of its service life.

In all, the Army has 3,850 rotor-wing aircraft and a smaller fleet of fixed-wing airplanes. It spends about $7 billion annually on aviation and there is little indication its slice of the pie will grow.

The self-imposed deadline of 2030 is still on the horizon, but between now and then many of the Army's workhorse helicopters will become functionally obsolete or so overburdened with upgrades that they are not worth flying and barely capable of accomplishing the mission at hand. Now is the time to begin investment in serious development of what Army leaders interchangeably call "future vertical lift" and the "joint multi-role" helicopter, said Rusty Weiger, the Army's deputy program executive officer for aviation.

"There are new jet lighters all the time, it seems, and we're still on the first-generation helicopter. There's nothing on the horizon for new platforms." Weiger said at an Aviation Week conference in Washington, D.C. "If no one had had the vision in the 1970s, we would have fought Desert Storm with Hueys and Cobras. Someone had the insight to move forward at that point. It is time for us to do the same thing with these platforms."

What the future of Army aviation will look like remains elusive and the requirements equally ethereal, but leaders in search of the futuristic technology have pledged to suppress their appetites for current systems in order to find the next aircraft.

Unlike other big-ticket platforms such as jet fighters and Navy ships, there are no programs of record for new-start rotorcraft. Neither is there Defense Department funding dedicated to development of future vertical-lift technologies.

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Plans are to start development of a medium utility platform within the decade, said Weiger.

"We'll he focusing on the medium version first," he said. "That's where we think we'll get the best bang for our buck. It is also where we think we'll get the most support from the other services."

One goal is a standard architecture that can be scaled to meet other requirements. The medium version will first be scaled down into a light aircraft, then up into a heavy-lift platform, according to Weiger's prospective timeline.

Developing the medium utility-attack variant first will allow the Army to replace 80 percent of its rotary wing fleet, he said.

Maj. Gen. William T. Crosby, Army program executive officer for aviation, has said as much in various settings, promising to focus on the middle and develop outward.

"We've got to keep focused on a balanced approach;" he said. "We're going to focus on the attack/utility variant because more than 75 percent of our fleet is in those categories. That way we get the best bang and return for our investment."

The Army already has an idea of what future helicopters need to be able to do, though no formal requirements have been released. A refined list is expected to be released in early April in concert with the Army Aviation Association of America's annual conference in Nashville, Tenn.

Informally, aviation leaders have a wish list of characteristics for their desired aircraft.

The medium-lift version should have a top speed of between 1 70 and 300 knots with a combat range of 260 miles. It should carry an interior payload of between 5,000 pounds and 20,000 pounds and have an exterior payload of up to 23,000 pounds. …

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