In the not-so-distant future, U.S. special operators, like
those who used
scuba gear boats and SUVs to go after terrorists this weekend,
may be carried into combat by quiet, ultra-fast helicopters that bear
only a passing resemblance to today's models.
The Army is trying to revolutionize a chopper fleet that hasn't changed all that much in the last 30 years. Four companies are trotting out designs to make it happen. One proposed aircraft looks like a minivan with rotors; another, like a V-22 Osprey tiltrotor on steroids. There's also sleek, stealthy-looking chopper. And the last resembles an awkward cross between a UH-60 Black Hawk and a V-22.
The Army last week signed "technology investment agreements" with the four firms -- a Bell-Lockheed Martin team, a Boeing-Sikorsky team, Karem Aircraft and AVX aviation -- to develop prototypes that will compete to be the basis for the ground service's light and medium-sized helicopters of the 21st Century.
For years, Army aviation leaders have been lamenting the fact that the service has not purchased a brand new helicopter design since the introduction of the AH-64 Apache in the 1980s. Besides the V-22 -- the aircraft that flies like an airplane but takes off and lands like a helicopter by pivoting its giant engines skyward -- almost all of the choppers used by the U.S. military today are based on designs from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Service officials will tell you that this has led to a sort of stagnation in the state of military helicopter technology, especially when compared to the giant leaps ahead in technology the Air Force and Navy have seen with the advent of revolutionary stealth jets and drones.
To remedy this, the service has kicked off a long-term project called Joint Multirole (JMR) aimed at developing a radically new crop of choppers all based on a similar design that do everything from hunt bad guys to haul troops and cargo. The new choppers must be able to fly at least 265 miles per hour -- double the top speed of your average helicopter. They also have to be able to hover at altitudes of up to 6,000-feet in 95 degree temperature; a difficult feat for many helicopters. The choppers must also be quieter than today's helicopters. All four companies have nine months to flesh out their designs, after which, the Army will select two to be built and flying by 2018. The Army wants the new aircraft in service by 2030 or so.
Here's a look at each of the designs.
Karem's proposal, the TR36TD Optimum Speed Tiltrotor (OSTR), strongly resembles a beefed up V-22. Karem claims the OSTR will be able to fly at speeds of up to 414 miles-per-hour and climb and hover higher and fly longer than other rotorcraft. (Karem was founded by Abe Karem, the man who designed the MQ-1 Predator drone.) For now, these are just claims since Karem doesn't have a single aircraft built.
Then there's the startup company AVX Aircraft. They are offering a helicopter (also shown at the top of the article) with a fuselage shaped like a minivan powered by a stack of two main rotors on top and two fan-like propellers in the back of the chopper designed to push it to speed the Army needs, all this for a "very attractive price." While the three year old company is staffed by a number of chopper industry veterans, AVX, like Karem, has yet to build an aircraft.
Next up is the Bell Helicopter-Lockheed Martin team's proposed V-280 Valor tiltrotor. While both of these companies have a ton of experience building aircraft -- Bell actually builds with wing and engines for the V-22 -- they don't have a prototype of the Valor. The "3rd Generation Tiltrotor" will apparently "deliver twice the speed and range, with enhanced safety margins and hover performance at altitude," according to Bell's marketing material for the awkward-looking craft.
Finally, there's the Sikorsky Boeing team that's competing with a design based on its experimental X-2, which is the world's fastest helicopter, flying at speeds up to 290 miles per hour. Sikorsky's concept calls for a sleek craft with two rotors sitting on top of the fuselage and one large propellor at the tail that will push the chopper along. It's unclear whether the aircraft will include technology found on the stealth versions of Sikorsky's MH-60 Black Hawks used by the U.S. Army.
It's important to note that Sikorsky is the only company that has a prototype flying. The rest of these crazy designs haven't left the engineers' computers. This may give the Connecticut-based company a leg up in the contest.
The Army has set out a pretty ambitious timeline for buying a revolutionary class of new choppers given the fact that it took nearly 30 years, 36 lives, and billions more dollars than expected to get the Pentagon's last brand new rotorcraft design, the V-22, into service. With budgets tightening, it may be incredibly difficult for the ground service to find the cash to justify building a brand new class of chopper, especially when it's been successfully using upgraded versions of old models for decades.
AVX, Karem Aviation, Sikorsky, Bell Helicopter