CSAR-X: The billion dollar fight

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As the contest enters its final phase, Paul Derby reports on the battle for the CSAR-X

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It has been described by industry sources as a “true dogfight” and whichever manufacturer emerges victorious from the multi-billion dollar scrap for the US Air Force’s next-generation combat search and rescue (CSAR-X) helicopter will have a significant fresh powerbase in the US military rotorcraft market.

The CSAR-X competition, which will see 100 ageing Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawks replaced with 141 new aircraft, will be decided later this year after a protracted competition that has seen the acquisition strategy evolve and the competitors change.

As the contest enters its final phase, the competing bidders continue to refine their teams and set out why they believe the USAF should place its faith in one of three aircraft types – Sikorsky’s HH-92 variant of the H-92, Boeing’s HH-47 version of the Chinook and the US101, offered by a joint Lockheed Martin/AgustaWestland/Bell Helicopter team.

In the run-up to Asian Aerospace, Sikorsky announced two new members of the HH-92 team. It signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Aerospace Integration Corporation (AIC) to provide system engineering for special-mission systems on the aircraft as well as flight-test support during the operational test and evaluation phase of the programme.

The Stratford, Connecticut-based manufacturer also penned an agreement with Rockwell Collins Simulation and Training Solutions covering the integration of avionics and training into the aircraft. Following the Canadian government’s decision to select the H-92 for its Canadian Maritime Helicopter Programme (MHP), Sikorsky now has the platform on which to build further military sales.

Having a military platform in place is no issue for Boeing and its Chinook-based bid. The fact that a Chinook-centred submission is even competing for the CSAR-X order would have seemed impossible less than 12 months ago. But a shifting acquisition strategy which saw the CSAR-X speed requirement lowered to 135kt (250km/h) made it possible for the Chinook to compete and also led to the withdrawal of a Bell Boeing CV-22 Osprey bid. The HH-47 on offer will share many features with the special operations MH-47G variant of the aircraft, including advanced countermeasures and survivability enhancements.

Boeing is also keen to stress that its assembly line has the capacity to deliver aircraft to the air force customer well ahead of schedule. Current CSAR-X thinking will see helicopters achieve initial operating capability in fiscal year 2012. HH-47 proposal team leader Van Horn says: “Our baseline aircraft is in service and performing missions today. The recent humanitarian relief efforts at high altitudes and harsh environments of Pakistan are a testament to the aircraft and the crews performing these critical missions. We also have a hot production line that can easily begin producing HH-47 aircraft.  All of which translates into a low-risk, best-value solution for CSAR."

Observers note that although the Chinook has its roots in a 1960s airframe, the fact that the aircraft is well established in the US Army’s inventory might play in its favour. The US Army could see transferable benefits from upgrades to the Chinook that could be applied to the MH-47G and CH-47F airframes.

The third team, the Lockheed Martin-led US101, is riding high after success in the VXX presidential helicopter programme last year, when it trumped the incumbent Sikorsky’s VH-92 bid.

Lockheed Martin vice-president aerospace systems Steve Ramsay says: “We know that our aircraft meets the requirements of the CSAR-X mission 100%. I do believe that we have the advantage in a number of areas, for example in what we call terminal area operations – the actual site at which the recovery of personnel takes place. We have increased survivability because of the 101’s three engines, we have the quietest aircraft with the lowest acoustic signature. The unique rotor blade design, which eliminates the dangers of “brown-outs” for the crew, is also a factor.
“The fact that the US Navy selected the aircraft for the presidential mission gives the USAF customer a risk reduction path to follow.”

All three aircraft have now completed two important milestones ahead of the contract award. The basic aircraft flight evaluation (BAFE) took place at Nellis AFB in Nevada late last year.

Boeing fielded an MH-47G for the three-day test, which included more than 20h of flight tests. The US101 was represented by a UK Royal Air Force Merlin Mk3.

The USAF used the process to demonstrate the rival aircraft’s multi-mission cabin configurations. Exercises included a series of hovers over land and water to evaluate downwash effects. Other CSAR mission scenarios performed were downed aircraft pilot pick-ups and extraction of injured personnel in litters.

In a separate requirement, each of the bid teams had to demonstrate how their aircraft could be loaded onto a Boeing C-17 transport as part of the “air transportability” element of the evaluation.