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Future Vertical Lift May Be Blast From the Past

The U.S. pushes on a new, family rotorcraft concept. Other nations build future fleets with proven platforms. All may tap new prognostics to cut operating costs.

All the traditional helicopters that the military will field are either already in service or under development and any future work will feed directly into the multi-service Future Vertical Lift (FVL) effort, according to Jose Gonzales, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for tactical warfare systems.

Many militaries around the world, however, will rely on existing rotary-wing platforms for some time to come to build and sustain their future fleets. Saudi Arabia, for instance, will be receiving re-manufactured and new-build AH-64Es through 2022 under a new, multi-year agreement between the U.S. Army and Boeing. Pakistan this year is to begin receiving attack AH-1Zs from Bell Helicopter, according to that manufacturer.

Even U.S. services will rely for some time on current aircraft, including Airbus Helicopters UH-72A Lakotas, Boeing AH-64E Apaches and CH-47F Chinooks and Sikorsky H-60 Black Hawks for the Army.

The U.S. Air Force chose the H-60 is the basis for its new combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) helicopter, which will replace that service’s HH-60G Pave Hawks. It is looking for an off-the-shelf rotorcraft to replace Bell UH-1Ns in the missile-field support and VIP transport mission.

The U.S. Navy selected Sikorsky’s S-92 as the foundation for the aircraft to replace the U.S. Marine Corps’ Sikorsky VH-3D presidential transports. Also, the Navy plans to add Bell Boeing V-22s as its new carrier-onboard-delivery aircraft. The Navy is still wrestling with how to replace its obsolescent Bell TH-67 training helicopters, but there is almost no expectation that it would go for a new design.

The Bell Helicopter V-280 Valor is preparing for flight demonstrations this year.Photo courtesy of Bell

The Marines’ new heavy lifter, the CH-53K, is the rare new-design rotorcraft entering the U.S. military inventory. Sikorsky developed that design to provide better performance and lifting capability to the Marines in the same footprint as their CH-53Es, which are rapidly running out of service life.

“While I certainly recognize that we enjoy world-class aircraft today, many of them have reached their performance design limits,” Gonzales said during a March 1 forum on FVL hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) at its Washington headquarters. “Life-cycle costs have become unsustainable, and we’re too slow and it’s too expensive to upgrade those systems.

“That has been our objective and our need from day-one on Future Vertical Lift.”

Beyond these programs and other efforts to incrementally upgrade legacy rotorcraft, Gonzales said all rotorcraft development efforts will feed directly into FVL.

“That’s where we snap the chalk line,” he said. “Any developments beyond that are part of the Future Vertical Lift family of systems.”

Whether a military service is flying a new design or an old one, it will continue the age-old quest for means of obtaining and lowering rotorcraft operating costs. Reducing such costs, as well as those from maintenance, was a key driver in the Marines’ objectives for the CH-53K.

The quest has gripped aircraft manufacturers. Bell chose a fixed, straight wing and tilting rotors for the V-280 – its contender for the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator supporting FVL – to reduce parts counts and boost reliability and maintainability, according to V-280 Program Manager Chris Gehler. The V-22 wing is the swept forward slightly and the entire engine nacelles at the wingtips rotate vertically – a major source of reliability issues for the aircraft.

Likewise, nearly every turbine engine maker is focused on finding means to improve reliability and prognostics with their products cut operating and maintenance costs.

Others are involved in the quest as well. Sentient Science, based in Buffalo, New York, has been working since 2001 to develop a system model for components that can simulate loading and operational conditions and facilitate long-term forecasting of critical component failures within drivetrains.

Company officials said their DigitalClone technology, developed with funding from the Pentagon and the U.S. Energy Department, has been tested successfully on the Black Hawk and Apache and is proving itself in operation with wind farms throughout the world.

Pakistan is slated to receive AH-1Z Vipers, one of many nations relying on old designs to sustain their fleets.Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps

Initially, the FVL “family” was divvied up into categories based on the size of the platform. The “light” variant would take over scouting and attack roles as performed by the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and AH-64. The “medium” variant would perform utility and mobility roles currently shouldered by the Black Hawk. Finally, the “heavy” and “ultra-heavy” would take over mobility and cargo missions from the Chinook in the Army and the CH-53 in the Marine Corps.

Now the FVL family of systems is structured according to five mission profiles or capability sets that are not necessarily exclusive and sometime overlap. FVL includes five capability sets that run the gamut from missions carried out by light to ultra-heavy helicopters. Capability set three last year passed material development decisions.

Capability Set 3 was identified as the best target for the first FVL variant because it would satisfy the largest amount of urgent vertical-lift requirements for multiple services. As the middle capability set, it would likely satisfy utility and other roles performed by the UH-60 and UH-1 Huey.

Capability Sets 1 and 2 would be performed by smaller aircraft that would supplant the AH-1 Cobra, Apache and OH-58. Capability Sets 4 and 5 would cover the roles performed by heavy lift helicopters.

All told, FVL would replace about 6,500 aircraft in the military services, said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Stacy Clardy, deputy director for force management, application and support on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Clardy also spoke at the March 1 event.

“Each of the services, obviously, with their portfolios of aircraft have plans for those aircraft in terms of when they’ll sunset,” Clardy said. “Some will be extended, of course. They have to weave that together with their budgets and...their needs. That will somewhat determine, as we go forward, what the timeline looks like.”

An analysis of alternatives (AoA) is underway that is taking stock of all vertical-lift requirements in the military services to inform a decision on what should be Capability Set 3. That AoA is “going to be very telling,” Gonzales said.

Both teams participating in the Joint Multi-Role Tech Demonstrator (JMR-TD) initiative, which will validate the basic technologies available for FVL, are nearing completion of their prototype aircraft and are set to fly this fall.

“We have set some very lofty goals in terms of range and speed and all the abilities that we would like in this next generation of vertical lift capability,” Gonzales said. “I think we’re going to learn a lot from that AoA. We’re going to take that learning and we’re going to apply that learning to the other capability sets.”

There is no set timeline for the rollout of the capability sets and the aircraft that would perform those roles. The AoA should be completed by late 2018 or early 2019, Gonzales said.

“We’d certainly love to see all capability sets moving out tomorrow, but that’s probably not likely in our current fiscal environment,” he said. “The services have to define the requirements and the services have to have the resources to make those investments.”

Clardy echoed the sentiment that in the current fiscal environment, the services have shown a willingness to pony up precious funding for a program they collectively envision with revolutionize combat capabilities.

“It really comes down to whether they are going to put the money into it or not,” Clardy said. “So far, they have. Each of the services, Marine Corps included, has put the money up that was needed to make the program a success.”

The reality is that budgets are being squeezed all around the world. This drives interest among military acquisition officials in proven aircraft, with those with enhancements, over new-design ones. That, in turn, compelled OEMs to find ways to offer such militaries more affordable vertical-lift options.

Airbus Helicopters has completed firing tests of its HForce weapon system on an H225M.Photo courtesy of Airbus

Hence, MD Helicopters developed the MD 530G armed scout and Bell has offered militarized versions of its 407.

Last year, Sikorsky – newly acquired by Lockheed Martin – unveiled a comparatively low-cost armed Black Hawk. The S-70i is built by Sikorsky’s PZL Mielec unit in Poland.

Lockheed Martin Chairman, President and CEO Marillyn Hewson said in a March 21 briefing in Washington that the armed Black Hawk demonstrated one of the many benefits of her company’s acquisition of Sikorsky.

“We have enhanced our ability to integrate complex platforms in a way that maximizes value,” she said. “As a line of business within the company’s new Rotary and Mission Systems business area, Sikorsky now has access to resources and knowledge from the entirety of Lockheed Martin. In this case, our Missiles and Fire Control Team worked with the Black Hawk team to develop an armed helicopter that can be configured to the specific preferences of current and future customers.”

Airbus has taken a similar approach with the HForce Generic Weapon System initiative launched last year. HForce is aimed at giving customers a range of cost-efficient options for meeting scout, ground attack, transport and air-to-air combat requirements without investing in purpose-built helicopters. It proposes to do that by building on the proven acquisition and life-cycle costs and performance characteristics of its civil helicopters and modifying them for military operations.

Drawing on its experience with the Tiger attack helicopter, the company said, it developed an off-the-shelf solution to address customers’ armament needs.

Conceived as a plug-and-play system, HForce’s core hardware is interchangeable from one helicopter to another. Software is specific to each helicopter, as are fixtures for the weapon pods. Armament can be exchanged between helicopters. Airbus officials said this system integrates any kind of weapon (air-to-air, air-to-ground, ballistic or guided) onto any kind of commercial helicopter in the Airbus Helicopters military range. R&WI