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Army Seeks Designs for Next-Gen Helicopters

by Richard Sisk on July 8, 2013

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The U.S. Army has produced a video to attract bidders and urge them to push the technology envelope in developing next-generation helicopter and tilt-rotor fleets for all the services under the Defense Department’s long-term Future Vertical Lift plan.

“I need aviation visionaries,” Bill Lewis, director of the Army’s Aviation Development Directorate, said in his commentary for the 7-minute video, produced by graphic designers at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. “The only limiting factor is your imagination.”

In response to the video, Hurst, Texas-based Bell Helicopter, part of Providence, R.I.-based Textron Inc., has come up with its own video featuring jut-jawed actors who quickly kick doors and “take care of business” with the help of the V-280 Valor, Bells’ tilt-rotor design for a joint, multi-role aircraft.

The Bell production promoting the Valor begins with two kids ditching their schoolbags to watch the video. “Sweet. Future Vertical Lift,” one kid says. “I can’t wait to fly that bad boy.”

In both the Army video and the Bell production, the theme appeared to be the transformative power of technology to shape future wars into mouse-click games in which the good guys never die, much less bleed.

Bell Helicopter, AVX Aircraft Co. and a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. have submitted designs to the Army for what is being called the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator for an attack and utility aerial platform that was expected to be the forerunner for a wide range of future rotorcraft.

The Army plans to make initial decisions on the demonstrator in September, with a flying prototype to be ready in 2017.

Sikorsky, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp., has teamed with Boeing to develop a concept aircraft that would have counter-rotating main rotors and a pusher propeller to give it a cruise speed of more than 260 miles per hour.

“By leveraging our proven design, we can offer the Army reduced risk, a 100-knot (116mph) improvement in speed, a 60 percent improvement in combat radius, and 50 percent better high-hot hover performance,” than other medium-lift helicopters, Samir Mehta, president of Sikorsky Military Systems, said in a statement.

Sikorsky, maker of the Black Hawk utility helicopter, and Boeing, which builds Apache attack choppers, last partnered to build the RAH-66 Commanche light attack helicopter, which was cancelled by the Army in 2004.

Founded in 2005, AVX Aircraft, based in Benbrook, Texas, bills itself as a “rapidly growing aerospace company” that has come up with a radical design featuring coaxial rotors and dual-ducted fans mounted on the sides. AVX claims that the design will give the aircraft greater aerodynamic efficiency and better speed, range and fuel economy than conventional helicopters.

The Bell V-280 Valor “will provide the Army’s most sought-after capability with a cruise speed of 280 knots (322mph),” Keith Flail, director of Bell Helicopter’s Future Vertical Lift program, said in a company press release.

The V-280 Valor builds upon Bell’s long experience with the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft for the Marines, which overcame a rash of development accidents and political opposition to perform ably in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the main differences between the Osprey and the Valor design is in the operation of the tilt rotors. In the Osprey, the engines and the rotors tilt, but in the Valor the engines are stationary.

The proposals from Bell, AVX and Boeing-Sikorsky for the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demostrator were the first major steps in the Pentagon’s overall plan announced in 2011 to have the Army take the lead in coming up with prototypes to replace the more than 4,000 aging helicopters in all the services.

In laying out the road map for the House Armed Services Committee, Maj. Gen. William Crosby, the Army’s program executive officer for aviation, last year acknowledged the budget constraints well before Congress imposed additional cost-cutting under the process called sequester.

“The next-generation aircraft will have to be a whole lot less expensive to operate than the current fleet,” Crosby testified, and be ready to come onto line in the 2020s.

However, “even with all of the great work we are doing upgrading and supporting the current fleet, now is the time to invest in the S&T (science and technology) required to develop the future fleet,” Crosby said.

“We are still flying third-generation vertical lift platforms designed during the Vietnam War-era, nearly 50 years ago,” he said. “Our current fleet will not last forever and there are bounds to our ability to upgrade current designs to meet future needs.”

The Army said that automatic budget cuts should not be a factor in the initial agreements with the manufacturers for design proposals.

“Budget constraints and turmoil continue to be a challenge but are not currently projected to alter the agreement awards,” Mervin Brokke, a civilian spokesman for the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center, said in an e-mailed statement.

Brokke would not comment on how much Bell, Boeing-Sikorsky and AVX were getting up front for their work on the demonstrator, although AVX has stated on its website that it received $4 million.

“Upon successful completion of negotiations and making of appropriate notifications, the Army will publicly announce the recipients selected for funding,” Brokke said.

Military analysts noted that the Army has dropped its long-time resistance to tilt-rotor technology in pushing the Future Vertical Lift program.

“The Army backed out of the Osprey program very early in its history,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and a Pentagon consultant. In the 1980s, “the Army figured that the Osprey was not quite wide enough for a Humvee. They decided to stick with conventional rotorcraft,” he said, “and that’s proven to be a big mistake.”

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