In this week's issue of Flight International, I wrote a feature about the Pentagon's plan to launch a prototype attack helicopter program in order to help preserve the US rotary-wing industrial base. Unfortunately, this country has not produced a successful clean-sheet military helicopter design since the 1970s. The Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey doesn't count; it's not really a helicopter.
Below is Flight's editorial about why it's important to invest in potentially revolutionary technologies:
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.
I'd say this DARPA project could potentially yield a production attack helicopter in the future. It kinda reminds me of how the old Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) program evolved into what is today the Lockheed Martin F-35.
But on the other hand, the Pentagon appears to be embarking on this project at the same time as the US Army-led Joint Multi-Role (JMR)/Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program is exploring advanced technologies to greatly improve the range, speed and payload for rotary-wing aircraft. The JMR/FVL is also looking at an attack variant (assuming that's still the plan), which kinda begs the question as to why the Defense Department needs two programs like this. It seems somewhat redundant, so I asked the OSD folks if they had any additional details; they didn't.
And there is the Armed Aerial Scout program, which doesn't really fall into this category... Sikorsky could offer the S-97 Raider, which is a arguably a revolutionary clean-sheet design. That's assuming the Army goes ahead with the program in this budget environment.
In general, I'm supportive of trying out new ideas in aerospace, even if the project is a spectacular failure. If one doesn't try new ideas, we never get anywhere. For example, this space venture my colleague Zack just wrote about is borderline insane, but at least they're giving it a shot.
Anyways, the legendary Burt Rutan can make the case for new innovative ideas far better than I can, so watch this video.