Despite its long-term budget woes, the Army has come up with $217 million in seed money for a four-way contest on the future of Army rotorcraft that potentially could be worth billions to the defense industry contractors who come out ahead in the competition.
The contest involves two established industry giants – Bell Helicopter and Sikorsky/Boeing – and the startups AVX Aircraft and Karem Aircraft, and features tilt-rotor concepts against radical new designs of conventional helicopters.
Under the $217 million cost-sharing agreement with the four firms, the Army set the initial stage for the development of a Joint Multi-Role (JMR) aircraft that would serve as the forerunner for a family of rotorcraft which would eventually replace the UH-60 Black Hawk, the AH-64 Apache, the CH-47 Chinook and the OH-58 Kiowa.
Whether the plan makes sense in the current climate of declining defense budgets and a sequestration process that would cut defense spending by about $1 trillion through 2021 is open to question.
“The near-term outlook for new program starts in rotorcraft is pretty bleak,” said Loren Thompson, executive director of the Lexington Institute. With little sign that Congress will act to lift the defense cuts, new programs for “helicopters as well as ground vehicles are moving slowly and grinding to a halt” in the Army, said Thompson, a defense industry and Pentagon consultant.
On Wednesday, Heidi Shyu, the Army’s assistant secretary for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, called the impact of the defense cuts “devastating” for the Army.
“The prospect of sequestration-level reductions through FY 2021 threatens to lower Army investment in soldier equipment to historic lows as a result of steep and sudden reductions required under the current law caps,” Shyu told the Tactical and Land Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.
“In short, the Army faces an unprecedented challenge in delivering capability to soldiers now and well into the future,” Shyu said.
Shyu’s remarks contrasted with the upbeat sales pitch for the JMR technology demonstrator offered this week by Bell Helicopter and Sikorsky/Boeing at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention and exposition.
Bell had a full-size version of its JMR-TD on the convention floor – the tilt-rotor Bell V-280 Valor, designed to have a cruise speed of 280 knots (280 mph) and carry a crew of four and 11 troops. One of the main differences between the Valor and the Bell V-20 Opsrey would be that the rotors on the Valor tilt while the engines remain stationary on the wings.
The advantage Bell has in the competition is that “tilt-rotor technology has been proven in combat” by the Osprey in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Dana Schenck, marketing communications manager for Bell.
Each of the four firms in the JMR competition has received $6.5 million from the Army and “Bell is making a significant investment,” Schenck said, but she declined to say how much.
Sikorsky/Boeing also had a full-size model on the convention floor but it was not of the JMR-TD. Instead, Sikorsky showed off its proposed high-speed SB-97 Raider aerial scout and attack helicopter.
The Raider had the same main features as Sikorsky’s proposed JMR-TD, named the “Defiant” – a pusher propeller and counter-rotating, coaxial main rotors. “It’s really going to change the way we employ rotorcraft on the battlefield,” said Steve Engebretson, director of Advanced Military Programs for Sikorsky.
One advantage of the Defiant is that it can fly backwards, said Frans Jurgens, communications manager for Sikorsky. In concept, the Defiant could back away from a hot landing zone while maintaining fire on the enemy by reversing the pusher propeller, Jurgens said.
In what could be seen as a dig at the tilt-rotor concept, the promotional material for the Defiant said the aircraft relied on “design innovation, not complex technology.”
The two other entrants in the Future Vertical Lift competition – AVX Aircraft and Karem Aircraft – had their own variations on the conventional rotorcraft and tilt-rotor designs.
AVX has proposed an aircraft with coaxial main rotors and ducted air fans on either side of the fuselage for additional speed and lift.
Karem Aircraft, a late entrant whose proposal was only approved for cost-sharing by the Army on Oct. 2, has offered the fastest tilt-rotor design, with a claimed speed of 360 knots (414 mph). Karem Aircraft was founded by Abe Karen, the former chief designer for the Israeli Air Force who has often been called the “father” of the Predator drone.
The Army expects to whittle down the competition to two contestants by next June. The two winners would then build proototypes for a flyoff to begin in 2017.