|AVX Aircraft Company is currently studying a Joint Multi Role concept under a U.S. Army contract. Shown in the inset are three Army conceptual designs for the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program showing (top to bottom) tiltrotor, single rotor and coaxial configurations.
Here’s a grim fact: the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has not fielded an all-new combat rotorcraft since the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor was developed 25 years ago. Instead, the military has for years been content to upgrade existing rotorcraft through various block initiatives rather than develop something new. Because of this approach/avoidance development pattern, basic research and development (R&D) funding suffered, producing a growing chorus of critics that say that the U.S. military rotorcraft fleet is tired and outdated.
“U.S. government’s basic rotorcraft R&D never really rose above a trivial amount,” explained Richard Aboulafia, vice president, analysis for the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consultancy. “Instead the military poured billions of dollars into applied R&D for specific programs.”
The majority of these funds went to programs that were eventually canceled, such as the Bell-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche, the Lockheed Martin VH-71 Presidential Helicopter and the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, the Bell ARH-70.
“The rest of the applied R&D funding was focused on tiltrotors, so it benefited the Marines, the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and AgustaWestland, subcontractor for the Presidential helicopter,” Aboulafia said.
There are no new U.S. military rotorcraft programs underway other than the Sikorsky CH-53K, a derivative heavy lift rotorcraft for the U.S. Marines. Bell Helicopter’s recently unveiled 525 Relentless, which is targeted at the civil market, could have some paramilitary applications. The F model Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior will receive off-the-shelf enhancements featured on other platforms, such as an advanced nose-mounted sensor, improved cockpit control hardware and software for increased situational awareness, along with three full color multi-function displays. But what is needed, say industry observers, is a brand new multi-role capable rotorcraft.
Some believe the U.S. is falling behind in the development of new military rotorcraft. “We are decades behind in developing new rotorcraft capabilities,” said Michael Hirschberg, executive director of the American Helicopter Society International (AHSI).
Asking industry to pay a larger portion of R&D in the current climate of ongoing defense cuts is a reasonable request, but the U.S. government “has a responsibility to pay for R&D for future military rotorcraft,” Hirschberg believes. “And if this research has some trickle down benefit for the civil side, that is fantastic.”
Hirschberg is particularly concerned about cuts to basic rotorcraft research and development funding as part of the Fiscal 2013 budget submitted to Congress in February. He points to the 52 percent cut in applied research funding for the National Rotorcraft Technology Center (NRTC), from $8.2 million in 2012 to $3.9 million in 2013. NRTC is a joint effort involving the Army, Navy, NASA, industry and academia. Industry and academia match R&D funding dollar-for-dollar.
NASA’s rotary wing budget—already at a paltry $28 million—was cut an additional $4 million FY13 budget, “which puts many of its projects below the sustainment level,” said Hirschberg.
The principal debate at DoD and on Capitol Hill is how much the government and industry should pay to develop new rotorcraft.
For the 250-knot capable Sikorsky X2 demonstrator and the S-97 Raider, a proposed scout and attack helicopter, “I think it is appropriate we pay for the concept R&D,” said Jeffrey Pino, president of Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. “We own the IP (intellectual property) and have a competitive advantage if we do it ourselves.” But if the government wants, say, the X2 to conform to certain specifications, “then they should pay the R&D costs,” Pino added.
This rule applies even to derivative aircraft. Sikorsky is getting nearly “100 percent R&D funding” on the development of the heavy-lift CH-53K, a derivative helicopter Pino describes as a “new aircraft with not one common part number” with earlier models.
The CH-53K fly-by-wire is supposed to lift twice the payload as earlier models and operate for half the price. “That is a huge development program and risk” for Sikorsky, Pino explained. Sikorsky has a $3 billion contract with the Marines to develop the CH-53K.
Pino, who was an Army aviator for 26 years before coming to the private sector, said there are related program issues worth noting. “I believe that trying to concurrently develop an airframe and mission equipment in one package is starting to become a failed policy,” he said. “Those are two development cycles in terms of time.”
Typically, the airframe takes longer to develop and deliver than the mission equipment, which “changes every few years,” said Pino. “We ought to develop these advanced platforms first. Within two years of having the platforms ready to go, let’s finalize the mission equipment.”
Regardless of how the R&D pie for new rotorcraft is divided between the government and industry eventually, “the current level of R&D is insufficient to maintain the industry base over the long term,” said Loren Thompson, principal with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based policy think tank. While the military continues to acquire off-the-shelf rotorcraft, “there is nothing new in the research pipeline,” Thompson continued.
A guide on how the various branches of the military should proceed on developing future rotorcraft will help. The Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Strategic Plan, which DoD expects to release soon, should provide a roadmap on how to proceed. The FVL Strategic Plan will help the services align their budgets for developing future vertical lift aircraft and on how to partner with industry. The plan should provide further guidance for the Future Vertical Lift /Joint Multi-Role Aircraft Initiative, which the U.S. Army is spearheading. The FVL program calls for the development of four classes of rotorcraft in the light, medium and heavy sectors. The first order of business is to come up with a medium-sized rotorcraft to replace the Sikorsky Black Hawk and Boeing Apache for the Army as well as the Navy’s Black Hawks. The Marines, which are fielding the Bell UH-1Y and UH-Z, will fulfill their mid-size helicopter needs up to 2030. After that, the Marines will look for an all-new mid-size rotorcraft.
What has yet to be determined is the amount of government R&D funding for the entire FVL initiative. The Army has made a commitment to fund two demonstrators. Cost of producing the demonstrators is around $350 to $400 million through FY2020 when the demonstrators are complete, according to Dave Weller, program manager for science and technology, Program Executive Office for Aviation (PEO-A), U.S. Army. The Army hopes to field a mid-size FVL by 2030.
The Army’s intent is to award contracts to build two demonstrators in FY2013. The demonstrator rotorcraft, which should not be confused with the full-size prototype, will look at key enabling technologies for the future rotorcraft. An analysis of what is needed in a FVL/JMR technology demonstrator is currently underway.
The notion that industry is a non-voting partner in developing next generation military rotorcraft is inaccurate, according to several experts interviewed. The 97-member Vertical Lift Consortium (VLC), a collection of industry leaders and academics, is working with Congress and DoD, specifically the OSD Executive Steering Group, to provide adequate start-up funding for the FVL program. VLC produced a 70-page white paper on its goal for achieving the development of next generation military rotorcraft.
VLC Chairman Nick Lappos, who is a full-time senior technical fellow for advanced technology with Sikorsky, has seen a draft of FVL Strategic Plan and believes it can be improved upon. “There needs to be more operations analysis to prove out the requirements to do the job,” Lappos said.
Frank Kendall, acting Under Secretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics is expected to soon release the FVL Strategic Plan, which will then go to Congress for review.
What remains cloudy is how much Congress is willing to invest over the long term in next generation military rotorcraft. At present, the Army receives around $100 million annually from Congress for rotorcraft science and technology (S&T) programs, or pre-R&D funding, as one budget expert explained. But there is very little budgeted for basic R&D for the FVL program. For FY2012, $11.7 million is appropriated and $11.9 million requested for FY2013.
In the Future Affordable Turbine Engine program, $9.4 million is appropriated in FY2012, and $9.9 million is requested in FY2013.
Weller said the FVL program is just getting underway. R&D funding will start low and begin to ramp up in the FY2014 budget when the fabrication of the two demonstrators begins. But what concerns the industry is that Congress has approved none of the funding past 2012. So it is anyone’s guess whether there will be a sizable increase in R&D funding for the FVL initiative or the program will just limp along.
On one point, there is little debate among the services. The time for beginning the journey toward fielding all-new military rotorcraft is now. “You cannot do anything to the current fleet to meet the capabilities needed for the future as stated by the user,” Weller said. “The speed, range and payload of the current fleet are too far short of the future capability needs to allow for a block improvement of the existing aircraft to be able to meet them.”
The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) declined to comment specifically on rotorcraft R&D for this article and attempts to seek comment from Jose Gonzalez, the top civilian on the FVL steering group, were unsuccessful.
Cheryl Irwin, Department of Defense Public Affairs/Press Ops released this non-specific statement: “Vertical lift aviation has been, and will continue to be a critical enabler well into the future of defense.”
As important to the agreed-upon shared financial responsibility between government and industry for R&D, and a roadmap on how to proceed in building new equipment, is a change of mindset.
“We can’t keep doing business as usual,” where there are multiple changes over time to a rotorcraft program and costs soar, said Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt (U.S. Army, Ret.), vice president for business development for EADS North America. “It is lunacy to expect different results now if we continue to do business as we have in the past.”
Before joining EADS, Mundt was the Deputy Chief of Staff of Army, director of Army Aviation.
A good example of how not to produce next generation rotorcraft was the tortuous development and eventual cancellation in February 2004 of the RAH-66 Comanche, a program that wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. The Comanche was going to be an attack rotorcraft, then a utility, and then a scout. Then it was to be an attack and scout helicopter, then only a scout before it was finally canceled, Mundt remembers.
Even with the delays, mounting costs and changes to the program, Mundt described the Comanche as the “world’s best helicopter” when it was finally unveiled.
“The problem was it took us 30 years to get there,” he said. “The rest of the Army Aviation’s fleet had suffered to the point that we had to cancel the program. We had no way to fund the rest of the fleet.”
The U.S. government does not provide direct R&D funding for new civil and paramilitary rotorcraft and fixed-wing programs typically. The civil market benefits indirectly from military programs in a trickle-down effect. But that could change with the recent developments in Europe and China.
In March 2012, the European Commission (EC) approved state aid granted by France and Italy to rotorcraft manufacturers Eurocopter and AgustaWestland. The funds will be used to develop the Eurocopter X4, the replacement vehicle for the Dauphin, which is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, and the AgustaWestland AW169, a twin-engine multi-role aircraft for the civil and paramilitary markets.
France will provide €143-million ($187-million) repayable loan under an existing state aid scheme, which was approved by the EC in December 2010. The level of support is around 30 percent of the total eligible costs of €470 million ($615 million). The loan will be repaid in full when a pre-defined sales target is attained, the EC stated.
Italy will provide additional support under an existing state aid program approved by the Commission in July 2008. Italy plans to provide AgustaWestland with a €272-million ($356-million) zero-interest subsidized loan over 19 years.
The funding for both programs will be used for industrial research and experimental development. It is hoped the funding will produce technological innovations to enhance the operating performance of these two rotorcraft, as well as reduce their direct operating costs, environmental impact and boost safety.
Eurocopter and AgustaWestland declined to comment on the EC’s announcement, and what it could mean to competition.
In China, Jingdezhen Helicopter, a wholly-owned entity the state owned China Aviation Industry Corporation, agreed to invest RMB20 million ($3.1 million) in the UH Unmanned Helicopter Project, which is taking place at the Helicopter R&D Institute. In May 2011, China opened the $2-billion helicopter R&D facility in Tianjin. The move is part of China’s long-term goal of developing next generation civil rotorcraft.
At present, there are a slew of plans for next generation military and paramilitary rotorcraft, but a noticeable reduction in U.S. government sponsored R&D funding to bring these designs to fruition. The ongoing debate centers on whether the government or private industry, or both, should foot the bill for basic R&D that could one day have civil applications.
But what is needed first is a strategic plan on how to proceed and a commitment by all parties to change the way these military rotorcraft development programs are run. Without this change, it won’t matter how much R&D funding industry and government provide.