Affprdable Options Available to Upgrade Military Helicopters

By Braganca, Eric | National Defense, August 2014 | Go to article overview

Affprdable Options Available to Upgrade Military Helicopters


Braganca, Eric, National Defense


While many portions of the defense budget are shrinking, the portion allocated to purchasing helicopters is falling through the floor over the next few years.

Recent analysis by the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan shows that helicopter investment will drop to just more than half of what it is now--from more than $12 billion annually to $6.7 billion by 2018.

The Army's future vertical lift (FVL) initiative is a laudable effort to create an afford- able family of aircraft. Even though that includes flying technology demonstrators this decade, it will not deliver new aircraft and technologies until well into the 2030s. That leaves more than a decade-long gap of capabilities.

The United States can still improve the effectiveness and safety of its helicopter fleet without the large expense of buying new aircraft. There are significant opportunities for improvements that can be implemented quickly and have dramatic impacts on military operations without derailing the budget and FVL investment.

Infantry was once considered the "queen of battle" because, like the chess piece, it could maneuver and strike anywhere. That now requires helicopters for troop movement, fire support, logistics, reconnaissance and more. Helicopters, and now some unmanned aircraft, are providing critical surveillance and accurate firepower on surface ships.

Since the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan began in 2001, the rotary-wing community has suffered more than 420 crashes with more than 630 deaths. Most of the crashes and deaths were not the result of enemy action. The vast majority of them were due to the same challenging environmental conditions that have been killing rotary-wing crews for decades--brownout/whiteout, flying into wires and controlled flight into terrain--especially during takeoffs and landings.

Commanders have accepted these crashes and deaths because modern warfare is not possible without helicopters.

Helicopters continue to face surmountable environmental challenges that other aviation communities have overcome. Despite all the contributions to warfare, the modern helicopter suffers from a lack of situational awareness. Modern fighters exist in a world where they launch from a controlled airfield or ship into airspace that is constantly managed by ground or airborne controllers who can provide continuous updates to the pilots. Ships have active and passive detection systems that share information so each modern ship can share information to create a common operational picture. By contrast, military helicopters routinely operate from sub-standard airfields, through uncontrolled airspace and into unimproved landing sites to support ground forces in the field.

Iraq and Afghanistan presented some of the most challenging environments seen in aviation--high elevations and hot temperatures combined with powdery-fine dust that swirls into visibility-obscuring mini-tornadoes under the fast-spinning rotors.

The Defense Department has the ability to mitigate many future crashes using existing or emerging technology.

There are three types of information that can be provided to rotary-wing pilots to minimize the threat posed by the environments they fly in. Using a combination of a synthesized cockpit display of aircraft state--such as speed, direction and power--automated flight controls and real-time visual environment display, pilots can have the right information to avoid crashes in these punishing environments.

While this is good news, the better news is that this technology will work well in other environments. Investment in these modifications for the current fleet of helicopters makes financial and moral sense. The more than 400 helicopters that were lost cost more than $5 billion to replace, and the more than 600 lost service members represent another sizable investment in training and experience.

Most helicopters have some type of information on speed, direction and power, but it is dispersed around the cockpit on various displays designed for stand-alone purpose--a power indicator, an airspeed indicator or a vertical velocity display. …

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