NATIONAL HARBOR, MD: Degraded Visual Environment, or DVE, is jargon for the problem helicopter pilots face when their rotors kick up blinding clouds of dust or other debris. DVE also describes the problem the entire rotorcraft industry is facing as it tries to anticipate what new aircraft the Army can actually afford in this blindingly uncertain federal budget situation. At this week’s Army Aviation Symposium, hosted outside Washington by the Association of the United States Army, the future was obscured by the fog, not of war, but of funding.
“We’re trying to see 20 years into the future, really,” said EADS.
Seeing 20 years into the future is more than difficult, though, when no one knows how much money the federal government is going to have in March — much less in 2033.
That’s roughly the year the service hopes to start to replacing its Sikorsky H-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter and Boeing AH-64 Apache gunships with a new Joint Multi-Role (JMR) aircraft featuring 21st Century capabilities. The JMR is expected not only to take off and land like a helicopter but fly up to twice as fast and far while offering much greater ability than existing rotorcraft to HOGE (Hover Out of Ground Effect), meaning high enough that the ground doesn’t turn its downwash into an air cushion.
Mary Miller, acting deputy assistant secretary in the research and technology office of the assistant secretary of the Army, told the AUSA conference that the service expects to award four contracts in the fourth quarter of this year for proposals to design, build and fly a JMR demonstrator aircraft by the end of 2017. But that will just lead to a technology demonstration, with development of an actual JMR expected to continue for years before a new aircraft is fielded – assuming one ever is.
In the near term, industry is waiting with bated breath to see whether the Army aviation community will be able to persuade the service’s leaders and the Pentagon hierarchy to commit $6 billion to $8 billion to replace the service’s 1960s-era Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters. And while that Armed Aerial Scout may turn out to be a mirage, it’s the only new Army aircraft program on the near horizon.
Executives on two industry panels told the Army officers present – though there weren’t many under new restrictions on conference participation – that the uncertainty surrounding the military’s rotorcraft plans and funding has consequences.
“I’m in favor of the new-start program on Armed Aerial Scout,” declared Sam Mehta, president of Sikorsky Military Systems, which is turning Sikorsky’s X2 technology demonstrator – a compound helicopter that set speed records a couple of years back – into a combat aircraft the company calls the S-97 and would offer as an Armed Aerial Scout.
In the absence of an Armed Aerial Scout or some other new-start program, however, Mehta said he’s concerned that the younger generation of rotorcraft engineers will lack experience creating new aircraft when the Army and other services can no longer rely on 20th Century designs and finally have to build a new one.
Sikorsky says it invested $50 million in the X2. EADS has invested its own money in building a fast flying technology demonstrator rotorcraft it calls X3. Mundt, though, noted that many companies are hesitant to invest in developing technology when they don’t know what they can sell. Robert Hastings, chief of staff and senior vice president for Bell Helicopter, added that industry is losing capital as investors look elsewhere to get a return on their money.
Boeing Military Aircraft executive Phil Dunford told the conference it’s a “very tough time” for rotorcraft companies. “In my opinion, we’re reaching a tipping point for the rotorcraft industry,” Dunford said. “I think we all recognize it and we’ve got to collectively do something about it, and industry has to take the leading role in that. We can’t just rely on the services to come to us all the time and say, ‘This is what we want.’ We have to give the Army and the other services information about what is the art of the possible out there.”
Today’s helicopters perform well, Dunford said, but the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor Boeing and Bell make for the Marine Corps and the Air Force is the newest combat rotorcraft in the U.S. inventory — and even the V-22 is 1980s technology. The Army’s mainstay Black Hawks and Apaches, though upgraded several times apiece, are even older designs, originally dating from the 1970s. Other Boeing executives, meanwhile, were boasting to reporters just the other day that one of their CH-47 Chinook transports this week celebrated its 50th birthday in service and will soon head back to Afghanistan. The Army’s newest helicopter is EADS’s UH-72A Lakota, which entered service in 2006, but that is a light utility aircraft, derived from a commercial chopper, that lacks armor and other features needed to fly in combat zones.
“It’s time to get on with the JMR,” Dunford said.
But as the panel Dunford was on concluded, Gen. (ret) Gordon Sullivan, the former Army chief of staff who heads AUSA, offered a comment that illustrates why the future of Army rotorcraft still qualified as a DVE. “The theory-to-practice on this stuff is hard,” Sullivan said. “Whether the money’s going to be there or not, I don’t know.”