April 01, 2013
Industry could find out soon just where aviation comes in the U.S. Army's priorities as it awaits a decision on whether procurement of a new armed scout helicopter can proceed without impacting long-term plans to develop advanced rotorcraft to replace its utility and attack fleets.
Helicopters have played a vital role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Army faces tough decisions on budget priorities in every area of capability from soldiers to weapons and armor to aviation, and its carefully wrought rotorcraft modernization plans are at risk.
A decade of hot-and-high operations has underlined the shortcomings of today's 1970s-vintage helicopter designs. The shortfalls are particularly acute in the scout mission, after two attempts to replace the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior ended in cancellation. But the Army's aviation branch has decided against developing an all-new scout in the near term, and opted for an off-the-self solution, so it can afford replacements for its larger Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk and Boeing AH-64 Apache fleets in the long term. These would be developed through the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstration and follow-on Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Medium program. Despite the Army's planning, the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) and FVL could end up competing for funds, forcing a choice by the leadership.
Bids to build the JMR air-vehicle demonstrators were submitted in March. The Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD) plans to award contracts late this year for two demonstrators to fly in 2017 and is looking for speeds up to 230 kt.—at least 50% faster than today's conventional helicopters.
Bell Helicopter has proposed a tiltrotor—but without its V-22 teammate Boeing, which has joined forces with Sikorsky to offer a coaxial-rotor compound helicopter. EADS North America has submitted a bid, but it is not revealing its chosen configuration. AVX Aircraft has proposed a coaxial-rotor dual ducted-fan design, and it has not been confirmed whether Piasecki Aircraft, which had been working on compound configurations with Boeing until the Sikorsky tie-up, has submitted a bid. AgustaWestland says it will not participate in the technology demonstration phase, but it does not rule out entering the FVL competition when the specifications emerge.
Sikorsky's X2 high-speed coaxial-rotor configuration has been selected as the basis of its joint bid with Boeing. The JMR demonstrator would be the third X2 design iteration after Sikorsky's company-funded technology demonstrator, which exceeded 20 kt. in 2010, and the 235-kt. S-97 Raider light tactical helicopter, two industry-funded prototypes of which are being built for first flight in 2014. The decision to use Sikorsky's X2 configuration was made jointly, after both companies completed separate Army-funded configuration trades and analysis studies looking at advanced conventional and compound helicopters as well as tiltrotors.
The two manufacturers announced their long-term teaming agreement on JMR and FVL only in January, having begun high-level talks after the Farnborough air show last June, by which time configuration studies were well advanced. “We did our own AOAs [analyses of alternatives], then did an AOA together using that work as the baseline,” says Samir Mehta, president of Sikorsky Military Systems. “I can't stress enough how collaborative this has been.”