It has been quite a while since the US Army last made an attempt at a clean-sheet rotorcraft design.
The story behind the previous effort with the RAH-66 Comanche hardly needs to be recounted here – although in hindsight the decision to terminate the programme was a sensible one.
Cancelling development after nearly $7 billion had already been spent is never going to garner positive headlines, but this step allowed the army to pump funds into an upgrade of the current fleet, a vital necessity given the nature of the Afghan conflict.
This time around, with the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme, the army is taking a very deliberate approach in an effort to avoid the pitfalls of projects such as Comanche, and more recently the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The selection of Bell Helicopter and a Sikorsky- Boeing team for the next phase of the Joint Multirole – Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD) effort was predictable enough not to require too much further examination – although I outline the plans of both teams in the latest issue of Defence Helicopter.
The two teams can now begin to prepare their candidate aircraft for a first flight in 2017, in what is shaping up to be a protracted battle of tiltrotor versus co-axial compound configurations.
While this provides a hint of what might eventually be fielded, some intriguing aspects of the programme remain – to quote that well-known philosopher Donald Rumsfeld, we are dealing with many ‘known unknowns’ when it comes to FVL.
The JMR-TD is not a ‘fly-off’ in the traditional sense, and only aims to better inform any future FVL decision, of which acquisition activity beyond this point is yet to be funded.
The future role of the other two contenders for JMR-TD – AVX Aircraft and Karem Aircraft – was unclear at the time of writing, although the technology investment agreements (TIAs) signed with all four venders may allow funding to be allocated to take their designs forward.
Dan Bailey, the army’s programme director for JMR-TD/FVL, revealed earlier in 2014 that 100 flight hours for each of the two selected vendors had been built into the programme, so if this amount wasn’t required it could open up additional funding.
‘These are TIA agreements, not procurement contracts fully funded by the government, therefore using the term “downselect” is improper. Each party, government and vendor, has rights to rescope the agreement or stop efforts under the agreement. That is the beauty of an S&T effort,’ Bailey told me in clarification.
It would certainly be worth advancing aspects of the designs by AVX and Karem to help inform FVL, in particular the latter’s optimum-speed tiltrotor technology.
‘What makes it different is the rotors are very lightweight, very rigid, they are not articulated and they are capable of wide-range speed variation, which gives it the ability to build in efficiency both in hover and forward flight. This removes some of the design compromises that traditional tiltrotors have between the need to be an efficient hover rotor and an efficient forward flight rotor,’ Ben Tigner, JMR programme manager for Karem Aircraft, told an audience in July.
The other pertinent question is how open any future FVL competition will be to European rotorcraft manufacturers.
Bailey has been careful to specify that not being selected for the flight demonstration phase of JMR-TD does not mean companies are ‘out of the game in any way’. Certainly the US team at Airbus Helicopters is outwardly confident that its internal S&T efforts will keep it in the running when any FVL solicitation finally rolls around.
Such uncertainties must be frustrating for an industry that is used to chasing ‘winner-takes-all’ procurement competitions. However, despite previous acquisition disasters, there is some evidence that the army is taking a more sensible approach this time around.
The multirole and joint nature of the plan is aimed at addressing long-term life-cycle costs, a sensible move given that more than 70% of a platform’s cost comes from operation and sustainment after it has been fielded.
According to Bailey, the FVL effort gives the army ‘an open door’ to think about how it maintains its aircraft, rather than being restricted by legacy systems and processes.
The Pentagon is also attempting to ‘cross boundaries’ and take a mission-centric approach to the way today’s helicopters will eventually be replaced under FVL.
For example, the USN chose the H-60 as its SH-2 replacement in the mid-1970s largely because it was already in production for the army and had a cabin big enough for the racks needed for the mission systems.
As plans evolve to replace the current Seahawks and Black Hawks, it is unlikely that the successor for each will be in the same weight class, given the differing mission and payload requirements of the two services.
So some grounds for cautious optimism then, although there is still plenty of time in the lead-up to the full FVL procurement for requirements to snowball out of control or for efficiencies to be lost in the pursuit of commonality.
One thing is certain, however – with the FVL programme expected to replace between 2,000 and 4,000 medium-class utility and attack helicopters, it’s all to play for.