Helicopter manufacturers, here is your challenge: build a machine that can pick up a critically wounded soldier at the top of a 6,000ft mountain on a hot day in July, dash at 220kt (407km/h) or faster to a medical facility hundreds of kilometres away, then land the vehicle easily in a blinding sandstorm while an onboard countermeasure system thwarts an incoming, state-of-the-art surface-to-air missile. And bonus points if you can make it do all those things without a pilot on board.
As you let that technological challenge sink in, you should be aware of a couple of small details. The world’s largest helicopter operator may not be completely sold on the challenge, and the customer probably does not have the money to pay for it. This is the US Army and its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme.
This may be the most technologically ambitious rotorcraft project ever to migrate from a laboratory curiosity into an approved acquisition effort. Two industry teams will begin building demonstrator aircraft in two years. A new engine design to support the project is already on the drawing board, and the date for starting low-rate initial production has been set.
Despite all of those positives, a sense of hopelessness hangs over the effort. And it is not just because all of the army’s clean-sheet development projects for new combat helicopters have ended in disaster since the early 1980s (excluding the Airbus Helicopters LUH-72A Lakota, but that was a commercially-based design with no development required).
The army’s resources are being stretched by the downturn in spending after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the supply of overseas contingency funding has shrivelled, the procurement budget of the army’s aviation branch has plummeted by 40% in less than three years. But its wish list of procurement priorities has only expanded. As future combat is more likely to involve urban canyons in megacities than open deserts or remote mountain hideouts, it feels compelled to seek better survivability systems and more advanced sensors.
Even if a series of FVL aircraft designs moves into production, the army must also somehow sustain the three current workhorses of its combat fleet – Boeing’s AH-64 Apache and CH-47 Chinook, and the Sikorsky UH-60 – until beyond 2060. Within about 10-15 years, planned engine upgrades for the UH-60 might allow a Black Hawk to pluck the wounded soldier off the mountain. It will not go as fast or as far as a notional FVL, but perhaps that will have to be good enough.