Magazine article National Defense

Future Vertical Lift Takes Step Forward

Magazine article National Defense

Future Vertical Lift Takes Step Forward

Article excerpt

* Army officials have been talking for almost a decade about new vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to replace its aging fleets of helicopters. The recent kickoff of a technical demonstrator program marks a transition from dialogue to actually putting an aircraft in the sky.

Prototypes for the new platform--interchangeably called joint multi-role or future vertical lift--could be flown as early as fiscal year 2017. A broad area announcement for the joint multi-role technical demonstrator was put out in August 2012.

Bell Helicopter, AVX Aircraft Co., European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., and a Boeing-Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. team submitted proposals in March and will be jockeying for a chance to prove their designs. Industry officials expect that the Army will choose two vendors in September to build demonstrators that will fly some time between 2017 and 2019.

The service's aviation applied technology directorate wants to evaluate whether technology is mature enough to produce an aircraft that can go at least 230 knots, which is much faster than the 90 to 145 knot top speed of current helicopters.

"Everything they want to do with JMR" is about speed, said retired Army Brig. Gen. Steven Mundt, vice president of business development for EADS North America. But achieving high speeds will not be the only challenge for industry.

"We've clearly shown that we can get above the 200 knots. Sikorsky has shown they can get above the 200 knots. If you look at V-22 by Bell, they've shown that they can get above the 200 knots," Mundt told National Defense. "It's not an issue about can you get to that speed, it's can you get to that speed at those rates, do the kinds of missions and maintain the agility and flexibility of a rotorcraft?"

The plan is to reach initial operational capability for future vertical lift by 2034, but current fiscal austerity and the service's previous attempts at fielding new rotorcraft have left some skeptical.

Proponents of future vertical lift say while the current fleet is still able to carry out its missions, older platforms are racing toward the end of their service lives. Merely upgrading current designs will not be enough for the Army to maintain its edge.

"The aircraft that we've been operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, they're the best in the world ... [but] they had significant capability shortfalls in things like altitude performance, speed, range and cockpit awareness," said Mike Hirschberg, executive director of American Helicopter Society International. "We lost over 400 aircraft and over 600 Americans in accidents."

The Army's goals are aggressive, but achievable, Hirschberg said. But with changes in administrations, congresses and budgets, and about 20 years to go until the aircraft are in operation, "it's going to be challenging to keep the funding together and to reach the ultimate goal of fielding something," he explained.

Others aren't as optimistic. Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group, said the cost of the future vertical lift program doesn't seem to justify the investment required. It would be a safer bet for the Army to continue rejuvenating existing platforms by installing newer systems and building new airframes when necessary, he argued.

"They would have to come up with enough of a reason to spend that money, and history tells us it might not be there," he said. "Is there enough other stuff that you would add, that can't be retrofitted, that can't be inserted into an existing airframe?

"I'm not sure that the case is there for new technology, and betting that it will be in another 10 or 15 years, that might be a little aggressive," he added.

In the past 25 years, the military has only fielded one new rotor-craft program of record--Bell-Boeing's V-22 Osprey, which is used by the Marine Corps and Air Force Special Operations Command. The Army plans to eventually replace all of its current rotorcraft with light, medium, heavy and ultra-sized variants of future vertical lift. …

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