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Cash-strapped US Army aviation focuses on immediate needs

A futuristic fleet of speedier and more survivable rotorcraft are at least 15 years away, but US Army aviation officials are not willing to wait that long to start addressing a long list of perceived needs.

That stance has placed the aviation branch in the awkward position of attempting to both modernise the current fleet and develop an all-new family of replacement aircraft featuring breakthrough technology, while coping with a budget constrained by sequestration cuts.

“We want the new capability, but we can’t afford it,” says Heidi Shyu, assistant secretary of the army for acquisition, technology and logistics, addressing the Army Aviation Association of America annual conference on 30 March.

The army plans to have the first operational unit of the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) fleet available in 2030. Two high-speed rotorcraft concepts – the tiltrotor Bell Helicopter/Lockheed Martin V-280 and coaxial-compound, rigid-rotor Sikorsky-Boeing SB-1 – are being developed for the joint multi-role technology demonstration (JMR-TD), which is expected to help the army shape requirements for FVL.

In the meantime, the army aviation branch has a long list of priorities for modernizing an existing combat helicopter fleet of Sikorsky UH-60s, Boeing AH-64s and Boeing CH-47s.

The army wants the aviation branch available to operate anywhere at any time. The current fleet includes three of the most capable military helicopters in any fleet, but they still have limitations, says Major Gen Michael Lundy, commanding general of the US Army Aviation Center of Excellence.

“Right now, we can’t fly and fight in all environments,” Lundy says. “We don’t have the [engine] power we need.”

In response, the army is funding the improved turbine engine programme (ITEP), an all-new 3,000shp engine to replace the 2,000shp GE Aviation T700 powering both the AH-64 and UH-60. GE and ATEC, a joint venture between Pratt & Whitney and Honeywell, are competing to win the ITEP development contract.

But ITEP also highlights the funding tension between modernising and replacing the army’s current fleet. The FVL fleet demands a much larger engine in the 6,000shp-class, so the army has launched the Future Affordable Turbine Engine (FATE) programme, but it is not clear if both projects can move forward if Congress does not repeal the sequestration budget policy.

The army also wants to accelerate a programme to develop technology that can allow a helicopter to land in a “brown-out” conditions, Lundy says. The branch also needs to link its combat aircraft with ground troops by installing the soldier networking waveform across the fleet, he says. Aircraft survivability also must be improved to cope with an increasingly capable of generation of shoulder-fired missiles.

“If it’s a new [threat] we’ve got to be able to rapidly adapt to that,” Lundy says. “We’re too slow right now. That’s an issue.”

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