By the end of this month the U.S. Army’s Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD) is expected to finish letting three to five contracts valued at $3 to $4 million aimed at kick-starting the next generation of military helicopter, the Joint Multi-Role(JMR), that would be used by all branches of the armed forces.
This is the first proposed large-scale, non-incremental fleet modernization of military helicopters since the Bell UH-1 was introduced in the 1960s, and the implications for technology trickle-down to the civil market loom large, given the pattern of military rotorcraft designs leading the way for civil follow-on products.
Hints of who is bidding what technology emerged in April at the Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A) convention in Nashville, with various OEMs displaying mock-ups, models and renderings of what they think the Pentagon wants. JMR is expected to be a fast, common and scalable technology designed to handle everything from troop transport to attack to cargo across light, medium, heavy and ultra weight classes. JMR is scheduled to enter service some time between 2025 and 2030, with prototypes flying before 2020.
Pentagon leaders have hinted that the final requirement for JMR aircraft is a forward speed of at least 200 knots, an unrefueled range of at least 370 miles, optionally piloted capability, a cabin large enough for up to nine troops, endurance to stay on station for two hours and the ability to operate at 6,000 feet at 95 degrees F. These parameters have focused most suitors on some sort of compound helicopter solution. As expected, Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider was front and center at Quad-A. The outgrowth of the X2 compound helicopter technology demonstrator was unveiled last October. But there were some surprises as well. Piasecki showed off a concept helicopter, the Pathfinder IV, based on its X-49A Fast Hawk experimental aircraft, a highly modified Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk with a ducted tail fan with vectored propeller and wings.
The initial AATD evaluation will focus on medium rotorcraft technology. Over the next 24 to 30 months it will conduct commercial studies on the technical feasibility and affordability of the entries, according to Ned Chase, chief of the platform technology division at AATD. Chase told AIN that the goal is to determine the basic outline of JMR technology by asking the right questions. “What would it look like and what are its attributes? How do we provide the most value to our war fighters?”
One thing that Army aviation leaders made clear at Quad-A, in the wake of cancellation of several high-profile military rotorcraft procurement programs including the Comanche, CSAR-X and Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH): Failure on JMR is not an option. The program is envisioned to field replacements for models that are currently the backbone of U.S. military aviation, including the AH-1Z Cobra and AH-64D Apache gunships, CH-47F Chinook, OH-58D Kiowa, UH-60M Black Hawk and the UH-1Y Huey. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the potential total cost of acquiring JMR aircraft at $57 billion, or an average unit cost of approximately $24 million. Given the Pentagon’s past procurement history of cost overruns, those numbers could be optimistic. But the scope of the program has not diminished leading generals’ enthusiasm for it. “We’re not going to waiver, our knees will not buckle, and we are going to field this aircraft,” Maj. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield, the head of Army aviation, told an audience at Quad-A. “I don’t want my grandchildren flying the (Apache) Longbow Block 80,” referring to the Pentagon’s tradition of updating the same airframes during the course of up to 50 years.
Crutchfield said that the technology needed to satisfy JMR would be “revolutionary, not evolutionary.”