Where is our future rotorcraft? A chart from the Naval Aviation Center for Rotorcraft Advancement shows production for every rotary wing platform in the service inventory declining. Aside from the V-22, there is no truly new aircraft being built. (I exempt the Marines' CH-53K super-heavy lifter because although it's new, it's not a clean-sheet design.)
My point is - if the U.S. doesn't get a new design on the drawing board this year, by 2026, we won't have much to work with. All our platforms are getting old. Really old. Which brings me to the Army's Kiowa Warrior. The 0H-58 is an indispensable scout, but with high operational tempo and stress, high loss rates and no new airframes to purchase, the inventory is wearing very thin.
So why isn't the Army in more of a hurry to replace it?
The service has had two failed programs in a row: Comanche and the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. When ARH was canceled in October 2008, the Army hustled to get started again as quickly as possible. Requirements were sent back through the standard process, leadership promised quick analysis of options. And then...
Here we are a year and a half later and the Army has not yet completed its analysis of alternatives. In fact, although leadership said the wrap-up phase of the AOA would be complete this summer, budget officials during the Army budget brief at the Pentagon Feb. 1 said the AOA would not be done until at least April 2011. That means money won't go into the budget until at least Fiscal 2012. Which means a competition, selection and fielding would have a new Armed Aerial Scout (as the Army now calls it) would not fly unti ... 2016?
Another ongoing project that's mired in indecision - the Joint Heavy Lift, or Joint Future Theater Lift aircraft. The Air Force and Army have been bickering about STOL v. Super-STOL v. pure vertical lift. Currently, the JFTL team is waiting on a decision by Pentagon acquisitions chief Ashton Carter that will jump start the AOA process. The AOA will then take about twelve to 18 months, according to officials. And then of course there's the requirements list. Bruce Tenney, associate director of technology at the Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate told me in mid-January that they're looking at an aircraft that's "bigger than a C-130J, smaller than an A400M" and can lift between 20-36 tons.
The Department of Defense put rotorcraft at the top of its priority list in the Quadrennial Defense Review. Now it's up to the services to get the acquisitions process revved up and put a new helicopter in the field. Soon.