Pentagon to invest in new prototype aircraft designs

Washington DC
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The US Department of Defense (DOD) will be investing in new prototype aircraft in order to preserve the country's engineering design talents, the Pentagon's top procurement official says.

"Helicopters is one of the areas that I'm concerned about preserving our capacity to do new designs," says Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. "I sent a letter out to the services recently on starting a prototyping programme that DARPA [Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency] will lead that I'd like the services to be involved in."

Kendall, speaking at a Credit Suisse conference in New York, says the Pentagon first plans to undertake a concept definition phase, but subsequently it will proceed with an "X-plane" programme. The idea, Kendall says, is to preserve the United States' engineering design talents, which if allowed to atrophy, would be extremely difficult to rebuild.

"High performance aircraft are one area where I'm starting something in that lane, helicopters is another possibility," Kendall says. "We haven't done a new attack helicopter, for example, in quite a long time."

The ill-fated Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche stealthy light attack and reconnaissance helicopter, which was cancelled in 2004, was the last US effort to develop such a new gunship. As such, Kendall says that the Pentagon could embark upon a prototype attack helicopter development programme in "a year or two down the road."

The benefits would be to preserve engineering design talent and shore up the industrial base. It would also mature cutting edge technologies so that they could be readily applied to a next generation operational aircraft, Kendall says. But most importantly, it preserves the ability to create an integrated design and fly it, which would build confidence in the technology.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group, applauds the Pentagon's new initiative. "It shows that they're responsive to what people are telling them," he says. "Prototype fabrication is a huge leap forward from concept drawings."