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Old 02-13-2019, 11:59 AM
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Arrow Why 2019 Needs To Be The Year The U.S. Army Picks Up The Pace On A New Long-Range Ass

Why 2019 Needs To Be The Year The U.S. Army Picks Up The Pace On A New Long-Range Assault Aircraft
By: Loren Thompson / Contributor - Aerospace & Defense - 2-13-19
RE: https://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenth.../#49d735d02de6

In the three decades since the Cold War ended, the U.S. Army has done a good job of sustaining the readiness of its helicopter fleet and installing new equipment when it was urgently needed. What the Army hasnít done is develop new combat rotorcraft.

All of the combat aircraft in the current helicopter fleet were first fielded during the Reagan yearsóor earlier. Their designs reflect the state of technology when they were developed. For instance, none of the Armyís combat helicopters incorporate fly-by-wire technology, electronic flight controls that have been in use by other military services and commercial operators for decades.

The Army canít reasonably expect to keep up with emerging threats if it continues to rely on Reagan-era rotorcraft to accomplish most of the airborne tasks required on a modern battlefield. The Army knows this, and has put in place programs to begin the transition to a new generation of rotorcraft technology. But it isnít moving fast enough.

Consider, for example, the Black Hawk helicopter that serves as the Armyís principle assault aircraft. Black Hawk first became operational in 1979, 40 years ago. The most recent series of major upgrades to the helicopter envisioned keeping it in the active fleet until the 2020s.

Well, the 2020s are nearly here, and the Army hasnít picked an aircraft to replace Black Hawk. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office indicated a successor aircraft might become operational in 2028. But the Army has over 2,000 Black Hawks to replace. If it bought a hundred Black Hawk successors every year, it would take two decades to recapitalize the whole fleet.

The Army canít wait that long. Threats are evolving too quickly, and enemies will inevitably take advantage of the vulnerabilities presented by an aging assault fleet. This isnít news to the Army, but youíd think it was from the pace at which the search for a Black Hawk successor is progressing.

To its credit, the Army is leading a joint program to demonstrate what can be accomplished with new rotorcraft technology, and the airframes developed under that initiative would be suitable for replacing Black Hawk. But the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration (as it is called) concludes this year, and then the Army proposes to take a leisurely stroll forward to a new long-range assault aircraft that will consume a full decade before anything reaches the force.

Thatís just way too long. Under the current schedule, the Army might still have Black Hawks in the force when 2050 rolls around. Imagine what combat systems and capabilities Americaís competitors might field during the intervening years! Thatís why 2019 needs to be the year that the Army gets serious about expeditiously producing a next-generation assault aircraft.

The programmatic framework for such an effort is already in place. It is called Future Vertical Lift, and the military services have agreed that its top priority should be developing a medium-size helicopter suited to accomplishing assault missions for ground forces while also conducting other necessary battlefield tasks such as resupply of forward forces and medical evacuations.

For some inexplicable reason, the Army seems to think it should retrace steps already taken in the joint multi-role demonstration before picking the best design and commencing advanced development of a Black Hawk replacement. That is a waste of time and money. The two teams competing in the demonstration have already generated impressive prototypes that can be readily compared in flight tests.

One of those prototypes is a third-generation tilt-rotor based on technology similar to that used on the highly successful V-22 Osprey. The Bell Helicopter/Textron team that developed what it calls the V-280 Valor has recently achieved speeds well in excess of 300 miles per hour and is exhibiting reach far beyond what any conventional helicopter can deliver today.

The other prototype, developed by a Boeing-Sikorsky team, is a co-axial (twin rotor) hybrid designated the SB-1 Defiant that also exhibits marked improvements in performance over Black Hawk. Either one of these airframes would be a good replacement for Black Hawk, capable of sustaining U.S. dominance in aerial assault missions for many decades to come.

So what is the Army waiting for? Letís compare the offerings, get to a down-select, and start bending metal as soon as feasible. Waiting until late in the next decade to begin replacing existing assault helicopters is taking unnecessary risks with the lives of our future soldiers.

Of course, Black Hawk isnít the only Army rotorcraft in need of replacement. The service needs a light helicopter to replace its retired Kiowa scouts, and it needs to implement ďBlock IIĒ upgrades to its heavy Chinook helicopters so that they can continue delivering the performance on which soldiers have come to depend despite added weight from on-board equipment. Fortunately, Apache tank-killers arenít in need of near-term replacement because they are already in the midst of major upgrades.

But Black Hawk stands out as the long pole in the tent of aviation modernization because it will take so long to replace 2,000+ helicopters. The current fleet will be receiving new engines in the years ahead, but that pretty much exhausts the spectrum of opportunities for keeping a Cold War rotorcraft relevant through mid-century. A new airframe is needed.

I have business relations of one sort or another with companies on both teams in the technology demonstration, and near as I can tell they are the only domestic manufacturers capable of producing the kind of rotorcraft our soldiers will need in the war zones of tomorrow. With two outstanding candidates to replace Black Hawk waiting in the wings, thereís simply no reason to delay moving out on a new long-range assault aircraft for our soldiers.

And if you have read the threat assessments, there are powerful reasons for not delaying. Our warfighters shouldnít be expected to conduct aerial assaults against near-peer adversaries with rotorcraft developed before their pilots were born.

About the writer: Loren Thompson. I focus on the strategic, economic and business implications of defense spending as the Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates.
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