When the doors were thrown open at the Fort Worth convention center in April to welcome the annual gathering of the Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A), the theme that everyone was focused on was—the U.S. Army Roadmap for UAS 2010–2035! Sure, helicopters were physically scattered throughout the exhibit hall—from the likes of the 160th SOAR, the 21st Cavalry Brigade, and from several of the leading airframe manufacturers, but the discussion points in the main conference presentations talked about the role—the ever increasing, widening and all-encompassing role—that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are taking within the strategic direction of U.S. Army aviation. It is important to realize how pervasive UAS are becoming in terms of fighting wars. The inventory of UAS systems and their operators is only going to escalate and the range of operational roles they are given is growing year on year, even campaign by campaign.
From a starting base of a handful of systems in the late 1990s, MG Jeffrey Schloesser, the outgoing director of Army Aviation, reeling off a few quick numbers: ‘there are now 1,716 UAS in the Army, with 1,865 trained operators, who have flown over one million operational hours.”
This growing reliance on all things UAS has not been lost on the helicopter manufacturers: Eurocopter, Sikorsky, Boeing and Kaman were all at Quad-A offering ‘me too’ ideas and concepts involving the development of optionally manned capabilities in tandem/or with existing manned platforms. The Department of Defense is now keeping a close watch on program funding and industry is aware that if the flagship Apache Block III update program can breach Nunn-McCurdy guidelines (even though it is due to the creation of a 13th Aviation Brigade where costs have been added into the Apache program), the procurement of the Armed Aerial Scout with two failures already behind it (Sikorsky’s Comanche and Bell’s ARH-70A) really needs to be “on the money.”
While investment in research and development (or science and technology) is hard to come by through the usual governmental routes, OEMs are deciding that the only way to keep pace with growing expectations is to dig deep into their own finances and invest in their own developments.
During the conference EADS North America announced that its team of American Eurocopter and Lockheed Martin would independently fund and develop three AAS-72X ‘demonstrator’ aircraft in a move to show its commitment to winning the Armed Aerial Scout program. Sean O’Keefe, CEO EADS North America, said that the investment would “prove technologies and demonstrate a low-cost, low-risk approach—and to further reduce risk as we go along.” EADS’ goal was to produce three demonstration aircraft which would provide data ahead of an expected Request for Proposal (RFP) in 2011. David Haines, vice president of rotorcraft programs for EADS North America, added that Eurocopter ‘had experience in the unmanned component which will drive our optionally manned development.’
The problem for all OEMs is to try and evaluate what the Army AAS RFP is going to require and how far the manned/unmanned teaming ambition will develop.
Sikorsky’s program manager for Advanced Systems Jim Kagdis said that the company is also working to produce an optionally piloted demonstrator version of its Black Hawk for the U.S. Army. By mid-year the two optionally manned aircraft will have performed a line-astern formation flight (although each will have safety pilots). By the end of 2010 Kagdis said that the aircraft will have performed an unmanned resupply mission. Sikorsky’s stated aim is to introduce an optionally piloted aircraft by 2015. The relevance of Sikorsky’s push into the optionally manned arena will not be lost of the Army, whose current fleet exceeds 1,740 Black Hawks. Any solution that could result in a low-cost kit that could convert any one of those helicopters into an optionally manned platform would be of serious interest.
In tandem with this, Kagdis said that the company had responded to the AAS RFP with a proposal based around its X2 Technology concept—in the form of a light tactical helicopter (LTH). Kaynes confirmed that the X2 demonstrator aircraft had completed nine flights and 130 hours airborne and that in Q310 the team would push the aircraft towards a 250-knot flight test. Although the demonstrator ‘will never go into production’ Kagdis said that they were ‘half way towards their objective’ of doubling the speed of existing helicopters.
Boeing too has got a couple of programs that are well known to the U.S. Army. There is the AH-6 with its AAS potential (flight testing has been running on an optionally manned version for some time), but in terms of rotary UAVs, the company is funding the construction of the first 21 A160T Hummingbirds off the production line in Mesa, Ariz. There is a belief that customers exist for this high endurance, long range platform. Program manager Ernie Wattan said that the first production aircraft would be ready by the end of the year with all 21 completed within 18 months. The A160T has already been tested as a cargo resupply platform at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah in front of the U.S. Marine Corps, as has Kaman’s unmanned K-MAX helicopter. “This bird will take trucks off the road,” claims Watten, who hopes the Army will have similar thoughts to the Marines when it comes to lifting cargo into difficult or hazardous locations. In another twist to the story, Watten said that the A160T had already flown with a payload of eight Hellfires, although there have been no weapons trials.
Perhaps the most surprising response to the RFP has come from a new company called AVX Aircraft, with its proposal for converting the Army’s existing OH-58Ds by replacing the conventional rotors with co-axial counter-rotating rotors and ducted fans instead of a tail rotor (see diagram on page 44). While industry insiders were sceptical that the proposal would represent a sufficient jump ahead in capability for the Army, AVX spokesman Mike Cox said an investment of $31 million would result in the development of a concept demonstrator aircraft which, he claimed, could be flying within 18 months. However, he noted that the company did not want to begin a manufacturing line and was talking to a number of potential partners, including Bell Helicopter, although all talks were at a very early stage.
While upgrade programs march on, MG James Myles, Commanding General of AMCOM, gave a quick summary of his perception of how industry was supporting the warfighters on operations (it was a summary of the status of the aircraft that day).
“We have over 750 aircraft in the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have 26 aircraft down for parts. There were 42 parts holding those 26 aircraft down and of those, 39 parts were already enroute or being moved from one location to another. Of the three parts not available, those parts can be found on another aircraft or will be found and will be sent.”
|Graphic of an EADS North America AAS-72X, which is being offered for the Army’s AAS program. EADS North America|
He praised the way that industry had upped its level of support: “Contractors and industry are turning things around a lot quicker than the contracts [should] allow us to do... but you still need to get the parts to the soldiers that need them. They need us now more than ever. The operational tempo is as high as it has ever been.”
“Dan Williams [Col. Daniel Williams, Commander, 4th CAB] is going into the fight, and when that happens the op temp will go up even further. His is the third Combat Aviation Brigade [CAB] in Afghanistan—last year we had one,” Myles said. “By August 2010 we will still have 200 aircraft in Iraq even as we are scaling down, continuing to fly the same op tempo that we are flying in Afghanistan. Incredible numbers but we are staying ahead of the power curve. But we need you to continue what you are doing. Thanks for what you are doing but that was yesterday’s news—soldiers are in the fight tonight and we owe them our very best every day.”
He challenged industry by saying that if they worried too much about the bottom line and didn’t do right on a daily basis to keep the soldiers in the field supplied, they would not do well in future Army contracting.
“This is not a sprint, this is a marathon,” Myles said, warning that contractors need to keep their focus and look at it in terms of the long term gain.
“We’re doing great but we have a lot of challenges still ahead of us,” he continued. “Dan Williams got his last aircraft out of reset just prior to putting it on the boat [shipping it to Afghanistan]. A CH-47—we had to put one more modification on the airplane. The amount of work and effort going on with these CAB pre-deployment training is incredible.” He told industry that if they needed to incorporate modifications as part of the reset program, to ensure they were delivered early. “This is a complex business that the CAB commanders are going through. It is not just resetting aircraft but then the flight training [to ensure they know how to operate the modified systems].”