Finally the army says: Make me a new helicopter

Army aviation is in pretty good shape (ignoring for a moment the recurring ARH-70 fiasco), but there’s one glaring omission. No all-new military helicopter has entered the fleet since the early 1980s. The cancellation of the costly RAH-66 Comanche in 2004 allowed the army to revitalize its aviation branch, but it also meant that it was stuck with only existing airframes.

Paul Bogosian, chief of army aviation acquisition, told me in an interview yesterday that situation must change. Bogosian retires in a few months and his major focus is laying the groundwork that will allow the army to launch an all-new helicopter development program starting in the fiscal year 2012 budgeting cycle.

Joint Heavy Lift, an A400M-sized helicopter, is the army’s first choice for a new-start program. Technologies necessary to support JHL would drive breakthroughs across the board. But going forward with JHL depends entirely on whether it is selected in 2010 by the Joint Staff for the Joint Future Theater Lift program, which aims to replace the C-130H fleet after 2020. The US Air Force would prefer a fixed-wing solution.

If JHL loses out for JFTL, the army’s Plan B is to start developing the replacement for the AH-64 and UH-60 in FY2012. The so-called Joint Multi-Role (JMR) seeks to develop a common design sharing dynamic components and cockpit architecture for both attack and utility roles (think Huey/Cobra, but for the army).

A huge question is whether this is too little, too late. The history of military aircraft development strongly suggests a 20-year development period, so a new-start in 2012 isn’t likely to be fielded until after 2030. And how will the army afford to develop an all-new aircraft while it continues to buy hundreds of existing manned and unmanned aircraft every year through the next decade?

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