US Army aviation at a critical juncture
US Army aviation is at a critical juncture, with three of its primary aircraft approaching their design life and airframe limits. Its heavy lift CH-47 has been the tactical lift workhorse, not only for logistics and providing mobility to towed artillery, but also for deep insertions and extractions. Similarly, the UH-60 BLACKHAWK troop transport helicopter and AH-64 APACHE, despite upgrades, essentially reflect capabilities and performance inherent to their 1970s baseline. Achieving increased cruise speeds, range, manoeuvrability and even greater reliability and availability may be impossible through further block improvements.
On the other hand, some key current platforms require improvements just to accommodate even near-term operational demands.
One of the priority programmed upgrades has been that for the CH-47 CHINOOK. Flight operations in Afghanistan highlighted some performance challenges. In addition, a number of survivability improvements have reduced its lift, jeopardising its ability to transport some payloads now entering service, such as the JLTV. The CH-47F Block II restores the aircraft’s performance while modernising and assuring fleet commonality of the aircraft’s systems.
US Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy said on 13 March that the army will buy 10% fewer CH-47F Block II upgrades than planned in order to fund top modernisation priorities, such as Long-Range Precision Fires, Future Vertical Lift (FVL) and the Next Generation Combat Vehicle, and Boeing said the decision, if implemented, would decrease army readiness.
The army is looking to the Joint Multi-Role demonstrator programme to lead to these capabilities. Under this technology maturation effort, Bell has developed its V-280 VALOR (first flight here) while a Sikorsky-Boeing team is pursuing the SB-1 DEFIANT (first flight here). A Bell spokesperson shared that V-280 has been flying since December 2017, has over 50 flight hours and has already demonstrated 195 kts air speed, with its 280 kts maximum speed test expected in 2019. A flyable prototype of the DEFIANT was unveiled in December 2018 and is beginning a 14 month test programme.
Although these aircraft could be suitable replacements for the UH-60 BLACKHAWK, the current fleet also needs updating. As a result, the army is seeking to accelerate conversion of its Lima versions to the new Victor model. Victor draws on Northrop Grumman’s FlightPro Gen III mission computer as its core. This can be used in any rotary- or fixed-wing aircraft, a characteristic that could interest the army in its potential for cockpit standardisation. Although the Victor is still undergoing final refinement, testing scheduled for mid-2019 could allow for a full-rate production decision soon.
The army is also in the initial stages of seeking a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA). A solicitation issued in mid-2018 stated: “The army currently lacks the ability to conduct armed reconnaissance, light attack and security with improved standoff and lethal and nonlethal capabilities with a platform sized to hide in radar clutter and for the urban canyons of megacities,” adding that it also seeks an optionally manned capability.
Proposals from industry were due in December. The programme will award design prototype contracts as soon as April 2019, envisioning having these aircraft flying by 2023.