Why militaries are yet to get excited about the tiltrotor/coaxial concept

At a gathering of the best and brightest of any industry, you would expect conversation to gravitate towards the expected benefits next-generation technology is likely to bring.

Curiously, this was not really the case during the International Military Helicopter conference held in London in mid January, where it seemed delegates were more interested in learning about mid-life upgrades of in-service aircraft than the co-axial/tiltrotor designs that may enter service in the 2030s.

In many ways, this is not surprising. One thread of the conference was doing business during the age of austerity, particularly since many of the emerging economies that were touted as customers of the future have been knocked back by the low oil price.

The other theme was the dynamically evolving nature of today’s threats. Instability in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen has cast a long shadow over the international community’s ability to act to resolve such conflicts.

Staying relevant

Against such a backdrop, conversations did not stray far from the question of how to keep current forces relevant in the face of budgetary pressures.

Among the countries trying to do more with less was Canada, which itself has had issues getting a relatively new platform into service in the form of the CH-148 Cyclone and is now looking to extend the life of its CH-146 Griffon and CH-149 Cormorant.

Meanwhile, France is working on an enhancement to its Tiger attack helicopter it describes as the Tiger Mk 2, which adds laser-guided rockets and improvements to the avionics and night vision capabilities.

In the longer term, the country is looking to get consensus from the other Tiger partners – Australia, Germany and Spain – on defining a more comprehensive mid-life update it has dubbed Tiger Mk 3.

Common interest

Any upgrade of this nature rests on the four countries settling on a common missile for the Tiger rather than the current situation which sees Australia and France employ the Hellfire, Germany the PARS 3 LR and Spain the Spike-ER.

Set for the 2023 time frame, the global upgrade of the Tiger Mk 3 will include improvements to ‘the entire digital space’, providing further enhancements to the avionics and communications suite.

One industry presentation at the conference that laid out a convincing argument for how legacy platforms can be given a new lease of life came from BLR Aerospace.

Dave Marone, VP of sales and marketing, outlined the disproportionate cost to smaller nations – in fact to most nations apart from the US – of buying a new attack helicopter fleet.

With some 320 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters still in service around the world, BLR has devised a comprehensive upgrade it has dubbed the AAH-1, which reduces the weight of the aircraft, increases engine power and adds BLR’s FastFin modification.

The latter brings a 15% increase in tail rotor authority, allowing 1,500lb/680kg more OGE hover in winds up to 30kt.

The company is also offering a range of performance improvements, navigation/communication upgrades and weapons and fire management systems based on customer needs. We will feature the solution in more detail in the next issue of Defence Helicopter.

I have written before about the progress of the JMR/FVL effort, and do enjoy the rolling debate about the merits of the tiltrotor versus the co-axial compound.

However, there does seem to be increasing scepticism whether the programme will come to fruition or be adopted by other countries beyond the US given the likely cost. In which case, affordable upgrades and life extensions will become even more of a hot topic.

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