The U.S. Army Wants to Replace Its Helicopters With These
The popular view of U.S. Army aviation owes a lot to Hollywood. Think of an Army helicopter, and the below is probably what comes to mind—courtesy of dozens of films such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and even Good Morning, Vietnam.
The Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopter was a U.S. staple in Vietnam, while the 1980s-era Boeing Co. AH-64 Apache attack chopper was the first combat aircraft to fire a shot in the 1991 invasion of Iraq. Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawk, the Army’s Huey replacement, has been a workhorse for troop transport and American special operations missions, including an unconfirmed stealthy version used in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
For the most part, however, these aircraft are aged and require immense maintenance to stay aloft, which is costly to taxpayers and dents combat capability. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has been struggling to maintain aviation readiness across all service branches, with helicopters among the worst offenders. As a result, the military is working overtime to find a less burdensome way forward for what it calls vertical lift aircraft.
They call it the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator.
For the Army’s part of this program, Textron Inc.’s Bell Helicopter subsidiary and Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Sikorsky Aircraft, teamed up with Boeing, are offering dueling visions of futuristic rotorcraft destined to replace the huge numbers of Black Hawk and Apache helicopters that, respectively, provide troop movement and attack capability. Both designs are focused on providing the Army with greater speed, range, and hover stability than is available in a traditional helicopter—all while reducing unit and maintenance costs. This final point is crucial, since the Pentagon believes these new aircraft will cost less to buy and maintain than its current, more delicate fleet.
Bell Helicopter is modifying the tilt-rotor technology featured in the existing V-22 Osprey for a smaller Army craft called the V-280 Valor. Tilt-rotor craft have rotating propellers that allow them to take off like a helicopter and then fly like an airplane. The Osprey, despite suffering several fatal crashes in its development, has become a workhorse for the Marine Corps, which retains the majority of the 400 built to date (the Air Force has a few, too).
With a flat carbon composite wing, the V-280 offers a crucial difference from the larger Osprey, which is built in conjunction with Boeing, in that the rotors move but not the entire engine housing. The flat wing design is aimed at affordability, as is the reduction of moving pieces when transitioning from lift to horizontal flight. Bell officials stressed the “manufacturability” of their design a half dozen times during a recent tour of the company’s Amarillo, Texas, assembly facility, where it’s completing final tweaks for the V-280.
The craft has a composite airframe and will cruise at 280 knots (322 mph), slightly speedier than the Osprey but dramatically faster than a helicopter. Bell plans to fly the V-280 Valor later this year. It’s designed to carry four crew and 14 troops.
The SB>1 Defiant is based on what Sikorsky calls “X2 Technology,” which encompasses a coaxial rotor system, an aft propeller, active vibration controls, active rudders and elevators, and fly-by-wire controls. The Defiant will cruise at 250 knots (288 mph) and offer greater hover stability, too. The helicopter is said to offer less downdraft and noise due to its dual rotors.
Sikorsky, however, has faced questions about whether its new tech can translate to heavier helicopter platforms. The company has so far tested it on smaller aircraft such as the S-97 Raider, while the Defiant as currently designed is meant to carry four crew and 12 fully equipped troops. This spring, Sikorsky pushed its first flight test back to 2018. In a statement, the company expressed confidence that it can make the leap to larger aircraft, citing “analytics, and wind tunnel testing.”
“We are confident that we understand and can manage the impacts of scaling the technology,” Sikorsky Vice President Dan Spoor said in an email.