Ability to integrate advanced network systems could be key factor for teams contesting rescue vehicle requirement

Adoption of a network-dependent strategy for the 132-aircraft Personnel Recovery Vehicle (PRV) programme promises as much of a shake-up for the US Air Force's combat rescue operations as for the four competitors vying for it.

A variant of the Bell Boeing CV-22 and the NH Industries NH90, offered by a newly formed Northrop Grumman/EADS North America team, have officially joined an already intense competition with the Sikorsky S-92 and the Lockheed Martin/Agusta Westland/Bell Helicopter US101.

An air force programme office created earlier this year has released only a set of requirements for the PRV, but a competition is expected to begin early in 2005.

Personnel recovery is a new term for combat search and rescue, with an emphasis on the absence of the word "search". USAF planners are presuming future PRV crews will take off with knowledge of the precise location of downed airmen. The aircraft will be plumbed with links to air and ground operational pictures, providing updates on the airman's movements as the rescue crew flies nearer. If the system works properly, little "searching" should be necessary, although the aircraft is still likely to be fitted with electro-optical and infrared imaging systems, as well as defensive weapons.

Showing an ability to master the integration of advanced network systems - including some still in development - may be a key discriminator in the competition. This speciality is the prime reason cited by EADS for its teaming with Northrop Grumman. On the US101 team, Lockheed Martin leans on its credentials in developing network-centric warfare applications. Bell Boeing, meanwhile, points to an existing air force roadmap for integrating advanced datalinks on the CV-22.

Here, Sikorsky may be more pressured to first win the US Navy VXX presidential helicopter contest. The Sikorsky VH-92 is in a politically charged competition with the US101 for the 23-aircraft presidential fleet, now expected to be awarded several weeks after the US election in early November.

The VXX fleet would give Sikorsky network integration experience and development funding. Indeed, Sikorsky VXX campaign director Rich Linhart says the VXX winner could heavily influence the PRV decision. The winner starts with a war-chest of development funding supplied by the US Navy programme, a cash reserve the USAir Force is likely to exploit.

Other PRV bidders are more wary about making a connection to the VXX winner. Lockheed Martin's US101 vice-president Stephen Ramsey says: "The US Air Force will make a decision that is best suited to the needs of the air force. But there are some advantages that the VXX winner will have."

Non-participation in VXX is not an open concern for the Northrop Grumman/EADS team, however. "The NH90 brings much more than $800 million in technical advantage," says David Oliver, EADS North America chief operating officer, referring to the VXX.

Source: Flight International