(The article below first appeared as a leader in the 22 January 2013 issue of Flight International)
Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall is directing the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to explore the possibility of developing a new prototype attack helicopter. Such an effort could present an opportunity for the USA to reassert its dominance in the rotary-wing industry after decades of malaise. Indeed, the last successful clean-sheet US military helicopter design was the Boeing AH-64 Apache.
Here is an opportunity for the Pentagon to invest in revolutionary new technologies such as high-speed compound helicopters, potentially offering big leaps in range, payload, speed and efficiency. Such progress has been sadly lacking in the rotary-wing world since the 1960s. But a higher degree of risk must be accepted if engineers are to be free to pursue game-changing advances. With careful analysis and design, programme risk can be reduced; it is, however, inherent in programmes that push the technology’s limits.
Even if they do not result in the originally intended platform, the advanced technological capabilities, enhanced skills and expanded knowledge base developed could provide a foundation for future programmes, reducing future risk. And there would almost certainly be fallout technologies with other applications.
The Pentagon could use this exploratory effort not only to revolutionise rotary-wing technology but also to invest in future national technological capability.