When the US Army exited the Vietnam War, there was a vision for its aviation branch. A breakthrough, high-speed helicopter – Lockheed’s AH-56 Cheyenne – was already cancelled, but the seeds of a comprehensive modernisation strategy had already taken root. Within a decade, it fielded the Sikorsky UH-60 and Boeing AH-64 helicopters.
While conventional in terms of speed and hovering performance, both types remain relevant among their peers almost 40 years later.
Army aviation is now at a similar crossroads. After winding down operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has a vision for a family of Future Vertical Lift rotorcraft with breakthrough speed and survivability. It also faces a huge bill to modernise the Black Hawk and Apache in order to keep them effective on an increasingly lethal battlefield for relatively low-flying and slow helicopters.
But keeping this two-pronged strategy on track will cost more than the army can afford, and at some point it will have to make a choice: either sacrifice near-term readiness or delay future capability.
The defence industry claims otherwise, pointing to a new crop of demonstrators in the Bell Helicopter V-280 Valor, Boeing-Sikorsky S-97 Raider and Sikorsky/Boeing SB-1 Defiant. Except for niche roles, however, these platforms must be scaled up with new engines if they are to replace the AH-64 and UH-60.
Source: Flight International