The U.S. Army is finally heeding the helicopter industry’s dire warnings of a production gap beyond 2020 by launching a program to fly technology demonstrators for advanced rotorcraft that could enter production around 2025.
The Army is working to bring other U.S. services into the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstration, which is modeled on the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) program that led to development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The move comes more than a decade after a similar attempt to launch a JSF-style rotorcraft initiative failed, and it responds to increasingly desperate industry calls for a new program. But it is far from clear whether the Army will have the funding or willpower to follow the JMR technology demonstration with the new-aircraft development and production program manufacturers say they need.
Industry has welcomed news of the JMR demo program, although the level of funding has not been specified and the role of the recently formed Vertical Lift Consortium is not clear. The consortium was formed at the Defense Department’s urging to stimulate innovation in the rotorcraft industry by bringing together large and small companies and academia.
Ned Chase, chief of the platform technology division, Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (Amrdec) said “We’re funded to build two clean-sheet aircraft that may or may not be the same configuration.” Configuration options include advanced and compound helicopters and tiltrotors.
The Army is hoping the other services, NASA and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will bring funding to the program. Jim Snider, director of aviation development for Amrdec , said “We plan to build two demonstrators, but we’d like to have enough money to build three.”
JMR is intended to demonstrate technology for a family of rotorcraft that would ultimately replace all of the Army’s helicopters—scout, attack, utility and cargo—as well as similar platforms operated by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. The focus is on replacing the “medium” fleets of AH-64 Apaches and UH-60 Black Hawks, but the demonstrator configurations must be scalable downward to replace OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scouts and potentially upward to replace heavy-lift CH-47 Chinooks.
The JMR tech demo is similar to the Joint Advanced Rotorcraft Technology (JART) program proposed in 1998 and modeled on the JAST effort. JART was ultimately vetoed by the services as unaffordable. This time, say industry officials at the conference, the Army has recognized it has no choice, because its helicopter fleet is aging.
Although the services are buying new-production helicopters, their designs date from the 1960s and ’70s and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted shortcomings in performance, reliability and survivability. Attributes for JMR include increased payload, range and speed, with greater durability, survivability and affordability.
In initial configuration studies these targets resulted in a large aircraft, Snider says, so the Army is looking at how manned/unmanned teaming could be used to reduce the endurance and range requirements and produce an affordable aircraft.
The Army has completed an initial phase of studies and begun a second phase of configuration analyses. Amrdec was planning to issue a solicitation for industry trade studies early in Fiscal 2011, but Chase says this has been delayed while negotiations with other services on a joint program are underway. Study contracts are now expected to be awarded by mid-2011.
The plan calls for configuration studies in 2011-13, followed by a flight demonstrator phase leading to a decision around 2020 on whether to launch a five-year development program for the first class of rotorcraft using JMR technology. This aircraft is planned to enter service around 2026, for a time span similar to the F-22’s and F-35’s and shorter than that of the V-22 Osprey and canceled RAH-66 Comanche.
Snider says whichever helicopter fleet is replaced first will depend on what the Army decides to do about its armed aerial scout requirement following cancellation of the ARH-70. Snider also says that the service could buy an interim aircraft or upgrade the OH-58Ds to keep them in service until they can be replaced by a new JMR-technology aircraft.
The flight demonstration is to have two steps. In the first phase, aircraft will be built and flown to demonstrate the key attributes of the JMR airframe. First flights are expected in mid-Fiscal 2017. In the second phase, these aircraft will be fitted with mission systems and used to demonstrate a common avionics architecture developed separately.
Although Amrdec says it has funds for two demonstrators, industry is concerned there will only be enough money for one if the Army stays in a “business-as-usual” mode, say executives here. Chase says costs will be driven by two factors: the technologies selected for flight-testing and the size of the demonstrator, which has to be of sufficient scale to be relevant to the utility mission, as the Black Hawk makes up the bulk of the Army’s helicopters. “Right now it’s a fairly low-cost program,” says Snider.
The Vertical Lift Consortium (VLC) leadership met late last week to decide how to respond to the pending solicitation for JMR configuration studies amid signs the Army could be backing off from working with the organization. The consortium was formed to speed the development and fielding of rotorcraft technologies by waiving normal procurement rules and encouraging established primes to work with innovative suppliers.
Phil Dunford, Boeing’s chief operating officer for rotorcraft systems, says the JMR tech demo is an opportunity for the U.S. rotorcraft industry to work together. “If we keep doing things the way we used to, we’ll get what we used to get. It’s time to step up and put our heads together on what we collaborate on and compete on in Phase 2.”
Meanwhile, Snider highlights the challenge ahead in transitioning JMR from technology demonstration to development and production. “The only way to get to JMR is to demonstrate a return on investment. We have to show that extending the current fleet out for 30 years is unsustainable.” To that end, the Army is working to determine flight-hour costs for each of its aircraft. “We’ll throw those into the mix for JMR,” he says.