Monthly Archives: April 2017

The case for the tiltrotor

As the US Army aviation community gathers in Nashville for the annual Mission Solutions Summit – where industry will be provided updates on various army upgrade programmes – our cover story in the latest issue of Defence Helicopter features one platform the service doesn’t fly.

While there are far fewer USAF CV-22B Ospreys in service than those flown by their Marine Corps brethren, the use of the tiltrotor for special operations missions over the past decade has equally changed the way the USAF does business.

We recently gained a valuable insight in what it takes to prepare crews to fly the CV-22, with intrepid reporter Barry Smith spending several days with the training unit, the 71st Special Operations Squadron (SOS), at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico.

The Osprey is tailor-made for the vast distances encountered in many of the regions the US finds itself operating in, thanks to such features as an aerial refuelling capability, allowing the USAF and USMC to ‘collapse speed and distance’, in the words of one marine commander.

However, despite a decade of intense and relatively incident-free operations, the fatal accidents that dogged the V-22’s development continues to cast a long shadow. One obvious manifestation of this has been the public reaction in Okinawa to MV-22 operations there, particularly after an accident on 13 December that temporarily grounded the fleet. Given Japan itself is purchasing the V-22, it will be interesting to watch how that shapes public perception there in the years to come.

The suitability of the tiltrotor in meeting the gamut of demanding military missions will also be placed further under the spotlight by the US Army, as it works through the Future Vertical Lift programme in the years ahead.

And that question takes us back to Kirtland AFB, where the 71st SOS has a training syllabus that is finely honed to the unique challenges of flying the V-22.

The training focuses on the importance of CV-22 pilots and special mission aviators (SMAs) – essentially a combination of the flight engineer and loadmaster career fields with many other duties – working together, particularly given the famous rotor downwash of the Osprey, which requires close crew coordination to land in an unimproved landing zone.

Collective dyslexia

One of the biggest personal challenges transitioning from helicopters to the V-22 is the added control input of changing the angle of the engine nacelles, something the commanding officer of the unit said resulted in ‘collective dyslexia’. While this does require some getting used to, ‘everyone figures it out just fine’.

The danger of entering a ring vortex state, which was a serious problem in early USMC tiltrotor operations, is also now well understood and students are taught how to avoid it. They are also shown how to stay out of the rotor wash of other V-22s with very specific techniques and parameters.

This is not unique to the V-22 and, as the commander correctly pointed out, all aircraft have parts of the flight envelope to avoid.

Operating the V-22 will remain within the reach of very few militaries around the world, given the aircraft’s procurement and sustainment costs. While the speed and range of the platform are clearly unmatched by any other VTOL aircraft, the smaller proprotors limits the V-22’s ability to go into a hot, high-altitude landing zone at a high gross weight. In such conditions, a helicopter such as the CH-47 Chinook may well be the better choice.

Nevertheless, the story of the 71st SOS and the effectiveness of the CV-22 training programme is a provocative one in the context of the US Army’s current examination of tiltrotor versus compound coaxial for its future rotorcraft fleet.

Bell Helicopter is developing its V-280 tiltrotor as part of the army’s Joint Multirole – Technology Demonstrator effort, while Sikorsky-Boeing is advancing the SB>1 Defiant co-axial compound helicopter for the requirement – the latter recently announcing the maiden flight of the Defiant will be delayed to the first half of next year.

Despite facing off against the two industry giants in the sector, Bell will be no doubt hoping that established operations with the V-22 across three of the services will help tilt the race in its favour.

For more on the operations of the 71st SOS, see the May-June issue of Defence Helicopter

Revolutionary Road: the path to greater autonomy

During a recent trip to Edinburgh, I had the pleasure of exploring several sights in that beautiful city, including the National Museum of Scotland. There, among the displays – which highlight the country’s contribution to advances in areas such as science, medicine and engineering – was a robot called Freddy.

Its simple name belies its revolutionary nature, since much of the technology written about in the current, and pretty much all issues of Shephard Media’s Unmanned Vehicles magazine can likely be traced back to Freddy.

This particular robot was developed in the 1970s by a talented team from Edinburgh University’s then Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception. It was given the task of assembling wooden toy components presented to it in a ‘jumbled heap’.

Freddy the robot

Using a robotic arm with grippers, a camera and a basic computer, Freddy was able to take the pieces and assemble a wooden toy car. Limited computing power at the time meant this process took around 16 hours to complete.

Nevertheless, this was an incredibly complex endeavour and some even believed it was impossible. But those pioneering developers proved the doubters wrong and led the way in artificial perception and its translation into intelligent, human-like responses through computer processing and complex algorithms.

Indeed, read through the current edition of UV UV Front Cover(Volume 22 Issue 2) and you will see a common theme: the pursuit of increased autonomy for unmanned platforms.

The basic concept remains the same as it did for Freddy over 40 years ago – a UV senses its surroundings and makes intelligent decisions about the task for which it has been designated (and even those for which it has not). Advances in sensors, computer processing and artificial intelligence means that, yes, the main idea is similar, but what is achievable is vastly different.

In the edition, writer Rory Jackson examines how UGV OEMs are continuing to insert autonomous functions into their vehicles, mirroring efforts within the commercial automotive world when it comes to the driverless car revolution.

Companies such as Oshkosh, Lockheed Martin and start-up Milrem have pursued a roadmap of greater autonomy to ease soldier burden and increase safety, while at the same time attempting to lower costs. I visited Milrem in Estonia recently to see first-hand how the company is expanding its workforce as it looks to advance autonomous capabilities for its THeMIS UGV.

Milrem THeMIS

In the air domain, UAVs are integrating more intelligent features, including technologies like sense and avoid, not only to ease integration into airspace occupied by manned aircraft and enable beyond-line-of-light operations – as Beth Stevenson details in her analysis of the current state of UAS regulation in the US – but also when it comes to controlling systems, or multiple systems (ie swarms), through a ground control station (GCS).

In this edition, Angus Batey runs through GCS and C2 technologies for UAVs and how there will be extra considerations for air forces as they bring capabilities such as stealth UAVs into service in the future.

RS20416_UK - Secrets Taking Flight

Much will depend on how an advanced stealth platform makes decisions by itself, rather than today’s UAV concept of operations that sees a reliance on external human commands sent via SATCOM. These signals would likely give away a stealth aircraft’s position to enemy air defences.

Another area where platform autonomy will be crucial is underwater. Much like contested airspace in a warzone, communication links to and from a deep-sea robot are inherently difficult. This means that the more decisions an AUV can make by itself, the better.

Heidi Vella explores this in more detail for UV with her take on the growing use of AUVs in the commercial world, and importantly, the challenges still present.

NASA demonstration.jpg

The key to the adoption of autonomous vehicles will be quantitative evidence that investing in the technology, however expensive, will eventually bring down cost of operations, while also increasing safety and productivity.

So, as you read through our current issue of UV, remember that Freddy, the pioneering Scottish robot, and his legacy, lives on. For those of us who are following the developments in this exciting sector, it will be interesting to see which one of the technologies within this issue, and future editions of UV, will have such a revolutionary effect that we will also be talking about it in 40 years’ time.

The April/May edition of Unmanned Vehicles is out now, download a FREE copy through Shephard Media’s Android and Apple apps.

US Army finally ‘going green’ in Europe

When it comes to operating in the field, one of the most important considerations for any soldier is camouflage. From painting exposed skin with cam cream, to covering vehicles with nets and various bits of foliage, the purpose is the same; blend into your surroundings.

It probably goes without saying that your camouflage varies depending on your environment. Tan colours for desert environments, white for snow conditions and green for woodland. Simple, right?

Unfortunately for the US forces currently stationed in Europe, it’s actually not so simple. Over a decade of fighting in the hot and sandy environments of the Middle East and Central Asia has meant that many of its vehicles are still painted in desert tan – despite being deployed in the woodland environments of Eastern European as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve.

The result? Vehicles are very visible, even with attempts at covering them with camouflage nets and tree branches. Quill saw this first hand during a recent visit to Latvia to see the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team and the 1st Battalion 68th Armor Regiment. Some examples of the desert-coloured vehicles can be seen below:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Can you spot the tank?

Of course you can.

Now the US Army is finally ‘going green’, not by improving its recycling habits, but painting its armoured vehicles in standard woodland colours. On 10 April, the service released photos of one of the first M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks to go through the painting process, with apparently another 400 vehicles to receive a fresh lick of paint.

This equipment belongs to Battle Company, 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, based currently in Germany. Both 66th and 68th Armor Regiments make up the two heavy armour elements of 3ABCT, with M1A2 Abrams at their disposal.

‘The tan tanks were there because we’ve operated in a desert environment for so long,’ said Capt James England, Battle Company commander, in a US Army press release. ‘Now that the terrain has changed, we are painting them green to blend in.’

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The green scheme will be applied to all fighting vehicles in 3ABCT, including M1A2 Abrams, M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M109A6 Paladin self-propelled artillery vehicles. According to the US Army, support vehicles will still retain their tan colours – likely owing to their non-fighting roles behind the front line.

Painting takes around three days, a process that includes washing the vehicles down, drying, applying the paint and then letting the paint dry.

Interestingly, the paint is temporary and, once the tanks and other vehicles return to 3ABCT’s home station at Fort Carson, Colorado, can be stripped off using a pressure washer.

 

Is US SOCOM’s load too heavy?

Earlier this year President Trump gave his blessing for more ‘beautiful equipment’ for US Special Forces Command, but the organisation has serious issues with over-extension and ever-increasing commitments.

Since its creation 30 years ago it has grown in size and taken on more responsibilities but does that still make it ‘special’ or just another army within an army? At over 56,000 people strong and with a global reach it is the service that most SF units around the world look to for leadership and both technical and tactical developments.

But with a list of at least a dozen core commitments from special reconnaissance and unconventional warfare through to counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and foreign humanitarian assistance it is difficult for even a force of this size to maintain the required levels of expertise.

US Congress has warned about these issues in a report in January and it remains to be seen how the new Trump administration and in particular the new National Security Adviser, Lt Gen McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis foresee the role of USSOCOM.

A more robust approach to engaging in operations has already seen an increase in operational tempo and the death of a US Navy SEAL in Yemen in January, but this will impact the organisation.

It is possible that the promise to increase military spending will see USSOCOM grow even more and improve its capabilities or perhaps larger conventional forces will be able to take on some of the responsibilities allowing US Special Forces to stay focused on a smaller number of key tasks and roles (see the April-May edition of Land Warfare International for more).

Drifting apart? NATO and Turkey

Of the three main political dramas of 2016: The election of Donald Trump as US President, the UK voting to leave the European Union and the attempted coup in Turkey; it is the effects of the latter that could have the most far-reaching impact for NATO and the Middle East region.

The rise in Presidential authoritarianism and religious hardliners on the one hand and a renewed friendship with Russia on the other could lead to a significant schism with NATO and the West in general. As Turkey becomes more self-reliant for its military equipment and is continually rebuffed by the EU over future membership, matters could come to a head and Ankara may look for friends elsewhere.

The failure in the attempt by the Turkish Land Forces Command to develop a Turkish engine for its new Altay tanks through an industry partnership between domestic company Turmosan and Austrian company AVL List is indicative of what could happen in the future on a grander scale. Austria’s Parliament imposed an arms embargo on Turkey due to the human rights abuses following the 15 July 2016 coup attempt and this included the engine contract, which was cancelled.

Furthermore the West’s military assistance to the Kurds in Iraq and Syria mean they have the power to resist and fight back against ISIS, but they have also built their own state in all but name – something which Ankara is diametrically opposed to.

If trends continue on their current path then it will make it increasingly difficult for the West and Turkey to travel on the same path and things could get particularly uncomfortable if Turkish democracy is eroded further. But for the TLFC it is continuing to build up its capability with a range of new procurement programmes that are coming to fruition (see the April-May edition of Land Warfare International, page 10).

Turkish industry has an exciting and active design and development environment that is lacking in both Europe and the US and so far this has not seemed to have suffered over the past year.

The biennial IDEF exhibition is always one of the most interesting in the defence calendar and this year will be no different. For more on the Turkish defence sector, see the next issue of LWI magazine and follow our coverage of IDEF next month.

The eye-watering cost of modern military aircraft

Designing, developing and delivering a new state-of-the art aircraft is no mean feat. But the cost of some of the latest and greatest aerospace technology is enough to make your eyes water.

Luckily the US has a pretty huge defence budget and by all accounts President Trump is looking to increase defence spending, according to his budget published earlier this month.

So let’s look at some of the most costly US aircraft on the market at the moment. Here at Quill we have whittled it down to three, but if you have any others feel free to leave a comment below.

First off we have the MV-22 Osprey with a flyaway cost of $71.92 million per unit. Now this seems like a lot until you get to the next two we’ve lined up. Really this might just be a relatively expensive bit of kit to put things into perspective…

Second, another helicopter, the CH-53K King Stallion. Is estimated that per unit cost will be around $130 million per aircraft, including the R&D. Another hefty sum, especially considering the aircraft has been in development since 2003 and is a maturation of technology from the CH-53A, CH-53D/G, and CH-53E predecessors.

Potential foreign military sales, Germany is known to be interested, could bring the cost of the aircraft down somewhat.

The CH-53K recently entered low rate initial production.

Lastly, this comment would not be complete without mention of the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Latest findings by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) breaks down the aircraft cost as follows.

R&D: $1.7 billion; Procurement: $209.7 billion; Total funding: $214 billion; all for a total procurement quantity of 2,158 aircraft.

The GAO puts the programme unit cost at $136.814 million. Now if you’ve been watching the news even President Trump thinks this is very costly, stating that costs are ‘out of control’.

However, it should be noted that Lockheed Martin is looking at ways to cut the cost and as more lots of the aircraft enter production this is likely. As well as foreign military sales helping drive down costs. The Navy’s aircraft is set to be reduced in cost by up to $100 million by 2020 according to reports.

Ultimately, the F-35 could become less expensive than the CH-53K helicopter. Now fancy that.