U.S. Army Walks a Tight Line on New Helicopter Programs
Faced with tough budget decisions on new weapons programs, the U.S. Army appears to be delaying a decision on the $6- to $8 billion Armed Aerial Scout program while concurrently moving forward with the potential $100 billion joint multi-role (JMR) initiative. The move has major implications for the half-dozen civil helicopter manufacturers who have offered commercial, off-the-shelf AAS solutions, which the Army now has apparently dismissed, as it decides whether to pursue a totally new aircraft development program or a service life extension program (SLEP) for its aging fleet of Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warriors that could push their use through 2035. Both programs have major implications for future civil helicopter technology.
Currently, the Army is working on a cockpit (avionics) and sensor upgrade program (Casup) for the Kiowa that will be designated OH-58F. The first Casup-equipped OH-58F made its maiden flight on April 30 at the Redstone Arsenal, Ala. The OH-58F could see service through 2025. The aircraft features a nose-mounted sensor, in place of the mast-mounted one on the OH-58D, glass-panel avionics, updated wiring harnesses, improved survivability features, new hardware, software and communications. The changes shave 160 pounds from the aircraft compared to the OH-58D.
The Army is expected to decide by September whether it will pursue new aircraft development for the AAS or stretch the OH-58F with a SLEP that would have manned and unmanned capabilities.
While senior Army officers initially reacted favorably to a commercial, off-the-shelf solution for AAS, on May 14 the service issued a statement that read, in part, “No candidate falls within our newly tightened budget constraints” for the program. Last year the Army hosted voluntary AAS flight demonstrations. Helicopters under consideration included the AgustaWestland AW169, AVX concept, Boeing AH-6i Little Bird, Eurocopter EC645 (a militarized EC145), MD540F and the Sikorsky S-97 compound coaxial. The AW169 and S-97 are still under development and did not fly. The AW169 will be certified later this year. The S-97, based on the X2 demonstrator, is expected to make its first flight next year and the Army could be waiting on it for the AAS.
On May 8, Army Lt. Gen. William Phillips, head of the service’s acquisition branch, told the Senate Armed Services Airland subcommittee that existing civil production helicopters do not satisfy the AAS requirement. “We didn’t find a single aircraft out there that could meet the Army’s requirements. So if we were to go forward with an armed aerial scout, it would essentially be a development program.”
Army deputy chief of staff General James Barclay told the subcommittee that Casup would allow the service “to address safety and obsolescence issues with the current fleet we have.”
Army Chooses Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator
Meanwhile, on June 5, Bell announced that the Army has selected its V-280 “third generation tiltrotor” for the joint multi-role (JMR) technology demonstrator (TD) program. Under the TD, the Army will fund construction of two demonstration aircraft. Final contracts are expected to be awarded by September, with first flights in 2017. U.S. armed forces are expected to procure between 2,000 and 4,000 medium-class attack and utility JMR aircraft under the Pentagon’s future vertical lift program, valued at more than $100 billion. A Sikorsky/Boeing team promoting the S-97 and AVX Technologies have also been selected for the JMR-TD.
Bell unveiled the V-280 concept in April. The design features fly-by-wire controls, conventional and retractable gear, fixed wingtip engines mated to swiveling gearboxes and prop-rotors, a V tail and sliding loading doors. Bell expects the aircraft to cruise at 280 ktas and provide a combat range of 500 to 800 nm and a ferry range of 2,100 nm.
Both Bell and the Sikorsky/Boeing teams are concentrating on winning the JMR contest, but it is likely civil variants of one or both designs will appear on the civil market someday. AVX has also sketched out civil variants of its coaxial/ducted fan technology.