The outlook for U.S. military rotorcraft programs as the Obama administration comes to power might look bleak at first glance. Incoming President Obama’s defense team inherits two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a plan Obama supports to expand the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps by 92,000 troops, and a procurement system widely agreed to be a mess.
The wars have been funded largely through special appropriations, but with an economic crisis sparking fears of another Great Depression, many analysts expect the new administration and democrats in Congress to cut defense procurement programs to free up funds for other purposes. The smart money is betting against an overall reduction in Pentagon spending. Increases will be necessary just to maintain current and planned forces. Brad Berkson, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation, confirmed in an October appearance on "This Week In Defense News" with Vago Muradian, which airs in Washington on WUSA-TV, that the Bush administration would leave its successors a plan to add $60 billion in each of the next six years to the $527 billion defense budget Congress approved for fiscal year 2009, which began October 1. Still, cuts in procurement to pay for all those new soldiers and Marines and the beans and bullets and gear they’ll need, social programs favored by many democrats are widely expected. That suggests troubled or costly military procurement programs could be at risk.
Against that ominous backdrop, each of the military departments — Army, Navy, and Air Force — has a major helicopter program in trouble, and a Pentagon program in trouble often becomes a candidate for budget cuts or even cancellation. The Army plans to restart its Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter program virtually from scratch this year after cost overruns led the DoD in October to cancel a contract with Bell Helicopter to fill the need with the ARH-70A, a militarized version of Bell’s civilian 407. The Air Force is still scrambling to solicit new bids for its CSAR-X combat search and rescue helicopter two years after the Government Accountability Office threw out its decision to accept Boeing’s offer of its HH-47 Chinook. The Navy’s new presidential helicopter also faces uncertainty. Lockheed Martin Corp.’s VH-71, a version of the AgustaWestland EH-101, has gone so far over its original $6.5 billion cost ceiling — $11.2 billion is the latest estimate — that the Navy plans to offer the White House Military Office a wide range of options for restructuring the project. All in all, the military rotorcraft picture as 2009 dawns isn’t pretty.
A closer look, though, suggests the horizon isn’t as dark as the pressures on the defense budget might make it seem for military rotorcraft. Three reasons: First, while the Obama administration could decide to cancel some major defense programs, the big money isn’t in helicopters. Even at $15 billion, the Air Force CSAR-X’s estimated cost pales compared to projects such as the Army’s Future Combat Systems, a network of vehicles and other equipment expected to cost upwards of $200 billion. Other Air Force and Navy programs are also far more costly than most rotorcraft programs.
Second, the three troubled helicopter programs previously mentioned remain high priority projects for the services in charge of them. Third, support in Congress for the military’s new helicopter programs seems solid. "I don’t know anybody who says we don’t need those individual capabilities," a top Senate aide who works on the defense budget told R&W, referring to the Army’s ARH, the Air Force’s CSAR-X, and the Navy’s VH-71. The aide demanded anonymity because it isn’t his job to speak publicly on such things.
Rep. Joseph Sestak, D-Pa., co-chair of the Congressional Rotorcraft Caucus, said helicopter programs generally should be safer from cuts than other procurement projects because Iraq and Afghanistan, and more broadly the Global War on Terrorism, have proven to be "rotorcraft wars" — conflicts in which rotary-wing aircraft are playing vital roles and have suffered significant losses from combat and wear and tear. A recent study by defense consultants Whitney, Bradley and Brown, for example, found that the Marine Corps lost more helicopters per sortie in Iraq and Afghanistan during 2003-2004 than during 1968 in the Vietnam War, though total losses in Vietnam were far greater. The Army also has lost a surprising number of helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan, the study said.
Predictions about what the new administration and Congress will do on specific programs are hazardous, and it may take some time for the Obama defense team to chart its course. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is staying in place, but as this issue of R&W went to press, senior officials below his level have yet to be named and confirmed by the Senate, a process that normally lasts well into the spring. The new administration will submit a DoD budget for fiscal year 2010 in February, but it is likely to be amended later when the full defense team is in place. Also, by law the Pentagon has to conduct its quadrennial defense review this year, a top-to-bottom look at everything the DoD does. The QDR’s effect on procurement programs won’t be seen until 2010.
No matter how all that shakes out, aviation officers in each of the services told R&W they were confident the major helicopter programs cited above would escape major wounds in the near term, given the need for them. Here’s a closer look:
The Army still desperately wants a new reconnaissance helicopter to replace its aging Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, a single-engine, double-bladed, armed scout aircraft that carries a two-man crew and weighs in at just more than 5,000 lbs for combat missions. The Army has sought an OH-58 replacement since the 1980s and the decision to cancel the ARH-70A because of cost and schedule overruns has set the effort back at least a couple more years. The service is writing new performance requirements for the ARH — minimum speed, range, payload, etc. — that it hopes to submit for approval early this year to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC), a panel of top officers from each service chaired by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The old ARH program got so far behind schedule, officials say, that the original requirements are out of date. Even the name of the program may be changed. If the JROC gives its go ahead, the Army expects to award contracts to at least two competitor companies to demonstrate helicopters and technologies they think can fill the armed reconnaissance need. A few months after that, the service hopes to choose an OH-58D replacement.
"The termination of the Bell contract did not diminish in any way the Army’s enduring requirement for a light, manned, armed reconnaissance helicopter," said Lt Col Frank Tate, action officer for attack and reconnaissance aviation programs for the Department of the Army. "We are proceeding as rapidly and carefully as possible to fulfill that requirement." Even if things go smoothly, though, a request for proposals is likely to reach industry only late this year, meaning a contract for a new start will be let in 2010 at the earliest. The Army originally hoped to start fielding ARH-70s in 2009.
In the meantime, with DoD approval, the Army plans to spend money originally budgeted for the ARH to sustain and improve its fleet of 342 OH-58Ds, whose suite of day and night sensors and armament have made them the most heavily used helicopters in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Congress cut $217 million from the Army’s total $439 million request for the ARH in fiscal 2009. Army and civilian DoD leaders have given the service’s aviation branch permission to spend $44 million of the remaining $241 million to keep its OH-58Ds flying and $16 million to modernize AH-64A Apache attack helicopters flown by the Army National Guard. Army aviation officers say the fact that the money is being spent on helicopters proves senior service and Pentagon leaders recognize the urgency of replacing the OH-58D and will fight to protect the new start in coming budget battles. In the meantime, the Army Audit Agency is studying how the ARH-70’s estimated development cost soared from $359 million to $942 million and its per-helicopter cost from $8.56 million to $14.48 million.
The Air Force has been trying for two years to get CSAR-X restarted to replace its Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopters, so the urgency for that program is growing, too. The Air Force has 101 HH-60Gs left out of 112 of the Black Hawk derivatives it bought between 1991-99, and like the Army’s OH-58D, the Pave Hawk has been getting plenty of wartime use. Lt Col Paul Fiorenza, action officer for combat search and rescue on the Air Force acquisitions staff, said HH-60Gs have been credited with more than 2,700 "in-theater" saves since September 11, 2001, though not all were combat rescues. By 2020, the Air Force estimates 93 percent of its HH-60Gs will be beyond their 7,000-hr service life.
The CSAR-X program has turned into a procurement saga that echoes the Air Force’s ill-fated effort to select a new aerial refueling tanker during the past seven years. Sikorsky, offering a militarized version of its S-92, and Lockheed, which teamed with AgustaWestland to offer a US101 variant of the EH101, protested after the Air Force decided in 2006 to buy Boeing’s tandem rotor HH-47 for CSAR-X. Boeing was to build 141 HH-47s between 2012 and 2019 for an estimated $10 billion — until the GAO ruled that the Air Force had departed from its stated evaluation criteria in picking Boeing’s offer. The Air Force reopened the bidding and in October announced it would amend its request for proposals a seventh time. Air Force officials hope to award a new contract at last this year. "We’re really now at the end-game, I would say," Fiorenza offered.
CSAR-X remains the Air Force’s number two procurement priority behind getting a new tanker. Until the program produces an aircraft, though, the Air Force is spending money originally budgeted for CSAR-X on a dozen or more improvements to its HH-60Gs, including a better target display, an improved hover system, engine modifications and a new 200-gal removable fuel tank that can be used in place of the Pave Hawk’s normal load of two 185-gal tanks. "We’re finding that in some higher altitude environments — in Afghanistan, for example — we’re not filling the tanks anyway," Fiorenza explained. The Air Force now hopes to get the CSAR-X replacement into service no later than midway through fiscal year 2015.
The Navy’s presidential helicopter program got into trouble partly because of an aggressive development schedule but also because of engineering changes ordered by the Naval Air Systems Command, government and industry officials say. The program was put on a fast track because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and awarded in 2005 to Lockheed, AgustaWestland and Bell Helicopter as a team offering the US101. The aging Sikorsky VH-3D and VH-60N models used as Marine One when the president is aboard lack the communications and survivability gear and the speed and range desired post September 11. Fitted with all imaginable creature comforts and the latest in secure communications and defensive equipment, the VH-71 is required to carry as many as 14 passengers 280 nm. Thomas Laux, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for aviation programs, said the VH-71 "is more a flying command post than it is a very nicely appointed helicopter."
Given the need to protect and keep the president in touch with military forces in a crisis, Lockheed was told to deliver five less capable VH-71 models — "Increment One" — by the end of 2008. Another 23 VH-71s — "Increment Two" — are to be delivered during the coming decade. The trouble arose with the Increment Two aircraft, which have far tougher performance requirements than the five Increment One VH-71s. "Increment One is a gap-filler aircraft," Laux said. "It was meant to be something we could get out there reasonably quickly and get it into the mission because we have, obviously, age issues coming up on us with the VH-3Ds and the VH-60 Novembers. Getting a gap-filler out there was a priority for the White House."
As this issue of R&W went to press, Lockheed was nearly ready to start delivering the Increment One VH-71s. The weight and volume of all the gear they carry will limit their range to about 150 nm, barely more than half the required 280 nm, Laux said. The weight and space problems — along with stringent specifications imposed by Naval Air Systems Command engineers, according to another program insider — also are to blame for the estimated cost of the program skyrocketing from $6.5 billion to $11.2 billion. Part of the increase owes to the need to raise the VH-71’s 2,500 shaft horsepower CT7-8E engines to 3,000 shaft horsepower, both for speed and range and to let the VH-71 hover out of ground effect higher and in hotter conditions. The program is also beefing up the VH-71’s drive train.
For the next few months, though, the Increment Two phase of the VH-71 program will be in limbo. Congress cut the Navy’s $1.047 billion fiscal 2009 request for the VH-71 by $212.8 million, the amount budgeted for Increment Two in fiscal 2009, and told the DoD to file two reports on the program. One is to discuss the VH-71’s performance requirements, revised cost estimates, and explain the reasons for the growth in the program’s price, why the cost was so badly underestimated, and what the Navy is doing to get the price under control. The second report required by Congress sounds more ominous. It requires the Pentagon to "submit an analysis of potential advantages and disadvantages of conducting a re-competition" for the VH-71 contract. Insiders don’t really expect the award to Lockheed and its team to be thrown out, but the possibility can’t be dismissed. Congress also included a provision in the fiscal year 2009 defense authorization bill barring the Navy from restructuring the program until the Pentagon certifies under the Nunn-McCurdy Act that the VH-71 is vital to national security, there are no alternatives, and new cost estimates are reasonable, among other things.
"We’ll offer all options to the new leadership," Laux said. During 2008, he said, the program office put together a menu of 35 possible ways to restructure the program, including reducing the number of VH-71s bought and adding other aircraft to the mix. "Until we get an approved program structure, we don’t really know where we’re headed," said Laux.
The services have a number of other rotorcraft programs underway, of course, and while none seems a juicy target for budget-cutters, some could be slowed, given the expected pressure to shift money from procurement to personnel and operations and maintenance. Some also could be accelerated, depending on the need, the Senate aide noted. A service-by-service look:
One of the largest pots of rotorcraft money is being spent on the V-22 Osprey, the tilt-rotor transport built by Bell Helicopter and Boeing in a 50-50 partnership for the Marines and the Air Force Special Operations Command. For perhaps the first time in its 26-year history, the V-22 appears safe from cuts. The Marines have been flying a dozen MV-22s in Iraq since October 2007 with notable success. In October the Air Force sent four CV-22s to Africa, the first deployment of that version of the tilt-rotor, to take part in a month-long exercise with the militaries of several sub-Saharan African nations. Navair awarded Bell-Boeing a $10.4 billion contract last year to build 167 Ospreys during five years, 141 MV-22s toward the Marine Corps goal of 360 to replace its CH-46E and CH-53D medium lift helicopters and 26 CV-22s toward the Air Force’s planned 50 to replace its MH-53 Pave Low special operations helicopters, the last of which was retired last September. Despite thousands of mishap-free flight hours since two fatal crashes in 2000, the Osprey still has numerous critics. The multi-year contract, though, is as close as a defense program gets to a shield against cuts. "Congress is loath to break multi-years," noted the Senate aide who works on defense programs. "We sign up to multi-years only because we think there’s going to be long-term stability in the program." Congress approved the full $3.425 billion the Navy and Air Force requested for fiscal 2009 to build 36 new V-22s and buy parts for future production.
A Marine Corps rotorcraft program on shakier ground is the H-1, in which the service is rebuilding 100 UH-1N Huey transports into UH-1Ys and 180 AH-1W Cobra gunships into AH-1Z SuperCobras. The Pentagon had to restructure the H-1 program in 2007 because of schedule delays and Congress cut $40 million out of the $474 million request for H-1s in fiscal 2009, giving the Marines enough money to buy only 11 UH-1Ys instead of 13 and five AH-1Zs. The cut was made because of doubts that prime contractor Bell Helicopter would get enough parts from a subcontractor to deliver 13 UH-1Ys this year.
The H-1 began as a project to rebuild old Huey and Cobra airframes using many common parts but now includes new airframes. The UH-1Y and AH-1Z still use 84 percent common parts, including the same hingeless, bearing-less rotor system with four-bladed composite rotor, the same drive train, a common tail boom, the same T700-GE-401C engines, and the same avionics. John Young, under secretary of defense for acquisition, approved the UH-1Y for full rate production in 2008, a major step. The AH-1Z SuperCobra, meanwhile, is still supposed to go into service in 2011, Assistant Navy Secretary Laux said, but its Operational Evaluation (OPEVAL) — the last major phase of tests before a decision on full rate production — had to be halted in 2008 because of problems with its integrated helmet targeting system, sensors and extra weapons carriage. All parts the AH-1Z has in common with the Whisky version of the Huey were working suitably, Laux said, but "we stopped the OPEVAL a bit less than halfway through because of the performance of the weapons system." Even so, Laux noted, procurement chief Young approved low rate production of AH-1Z’s for another two years after the Navy presented him with a plan to solve the Zulu’s problems.
The other major Navy Department rotorcraft development program is the CH-53K, the Sikorsky-built replacement for the Marine Corps’ heavy lift CH-53Es. The CH-53K passed its preliminary design review in 2008, and while behind its original schedule, still should be ready for service by 2015, Laux said. Congress approved the entire $570 million request for the CH-53K in fiscal 2009.
The anticipated new ARH program is the Army’s only entirely new rotorcraft start at the moment but the service is spending millions to upgrade its AH-64 Apache Longbow gunships and CH-47D Chinook tandem-rotor transports, both built by Boeing. This year the Army also plans to start converting 228 UH-60A Black Hawks, built by Sikorsky, into UH-60Ls for the Army National Guard, with the work to be done by the Army’s Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas. The UH-60Ls for the Guard will have new fuselages, glass cockpits and vibration-monitoring sensors to improve maintenance.
The Apache program is being done in two stages, Block II and Block III, with the Army’s ultimate goal to own 634 Block IIIs. Congress added $2 million to the Army’s $639 million request for the Apache in fiscal 2009, with the money earmarked to buy vibration monitoring gear for the S.C. National Guard’s AH-64s. Block II Apaches are in production at Boeing’s plant in Mesa, Ariz., and the Block III has begun testing. The Army hopes to get Pentagon approval to start Block III Apache production this year.
Both Block II and Block III Apaches have new software and electronics but the Block III also has a new rotor blade with a wider chord and a new split torque gear transmission that went into testing this past fall. The new transmission is designed to let the Apache hover out of ground effect at 6,000 ft on a 95-deg day, a big jump from the current 4,000 ft. "It takes a lot of power to do that," noted Col Vance Sales, aviation director for the Army’s deputy chief of staff for force development. "For the regimes that we’re operating in now in the Afghanistan area, it’ll make a big difference in the ability to maneuver." With the current transmission, Sales said, Apache pilots trying to give troops air cover in the mountains of Afghanistan often "have to fly in a pattern, in and around, and do these loops to stay in the battle area." Army officials are optimistic that neither the Obama administration nor Congress will be tempted to make cuts in the Apache program, assuming the Block III tests go well.
Another major Army program that appears safe is the CH-47 Chinook upgrade, in which Boeing is remanufacturing 262 CH-47Ds into CH-47Fs and building 190 new ones. The Army gave Boeing a five-year, $4.3 billion contract in August for the latest batch of 191 CH-47Fs, a deal which — like Bell-Boeing’s five-year Osprey contract — should protect the Chinook. Boeing also has been converting MH-47D and E Chinooks into 61 more advanced MH-47Gs for the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment under a program nearing its end.
Also popular on Capitol Hill is the Army’s Light Utility Helicopter program, in which the service is buying 322 UH-72A Lakotas — a version of the Eurocopter EC145 — from EADS North America, mainly for the Army National Guard. Congress added $32.6 million to that program last year, raising its budget in fiscal 2009 to $257 million.
Aside from the CSAR-X and CV-22, the Air Force’s major rotorcraft project is the Common Vertical Lift Support Program, a plan to replace 62 UH-1Ns the service uses in the United States for security and surveillance of nuclear missile fields and VIP passenger transport in the Washington, D.C., area. The Air Force Space Command has analyzed alternatives and is writing requirements for a light helicopter able to carry security forces and perhaps a crew-served machine gun or two.
The Air Force is the lead service on another project whose future is murky at best, the Joint Future Theater Lift (JFTL) program, whose goal is to come up with a C-130 Hercules-sized transport all the services can use. A tilt-rotor two or more times as big as the V-22 Osprey was the Army’s choice as of 2007 for what it calls Joint Heavy Lift, a candidate for the Air Force-led JFTL program. The aim is to develop a transport able to carry 60,000 lbs, but that’s about where agreement among the services ends. The Army wants a vertical lift aircraft for that role, though engines big enough to lift such a load — 15,000 shaft horsepower — aren’t yet available. The Air Force favors a fixed-wing aircraft with short takeoff and landing capability. In tight budget times, some insiders say the JFTL project could be a long time bearing fruit.
Sestak, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told R&W that while he deems cancellations of current helicopter programs unlikely, the mounting frustration in the Pentagon and Congress with cost and schedule overruns could lead to cuts or slowdowns in troubled projects. The Army’s ARH-70 is just the latest of five helicopter programs that have breached limits on cost and schedule in recent years under the Nunn-McCurdy Act, a law that requires the Pentagon to either cancel or re-justify a procurement whose unit cost increases beyond 25 percent of its baseline. Sestak said all too often "the acquisition community says, ‘Trust us, this is what it’s going to cost,’ and inevitably it’s significantly more than that. So you may see the quantity per year, unfortunately, not be as much."
Given the difficulties some major military rotorcraft programs are facing, that’s an outlook that doesn’t sound too bleak at all.