If anything became evident two-thirds of the way through 2009, it was that where rotary-wing weapon systems are concerned, defense establishments are taking a highly selective approach to acquisition, modernization and fielding. Cost and operational imperatives are dictating that where rotary wing systems are mature enough, they will be fielded (CH-47F, Eurocopter Tiger HAP) and where they are unable to meet acquisition/operational goals, they will be terminated (VH-71, ARH-70).
Likewise, the potential of rotary-wing-based unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is clouding strategic decision-making as regards necessary future manned systems. Successful demonstration of various U.S Navy/Army Fire Scout UAS mission capabilities over the summer has American military acquisition managers (egged on by the Secretary of Defense and conrgressional representatives) mulling a revised mix of manned and unmanned aircraft. International observers are paying close attention.
On the industry side, developments through the third quarter make increasingly clear what rotorcraft market watchers have recognized for some years – the military rotorcraft industry in the USA can expect major change in the next decade. Bell, Boeing and Sikorsky have combined to field just one truly new military aircraft (the Bell Boeing V-22) in the last three decades. No new models are on the horizon and orders for current derivatives (CH-47, AH-64, UH-60, CH-53K) are expected to be filled some time short of 2020. Without significant innovation, or intervention by DoD, the sustainability of three U.S. rotorcraft airframers is in serious doubt.
The situation is evident in the medium/heavy lift segment, where non-U.S. manufacturers offer relatively new designs against improved derivative designs from the American airframers. New proposals for the U.S. Army’s long tenured Joint Heavy Lift (JHL) program center on derivative vertical lift solutions, including another Bell/Boeing tilt-rotor. Potential transatlantic cooperation on an intra-theater heavy-lift rotorcraft was, in fact, among the first issues discussed in what has shaped up as a pivotal year.
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Europe too, has a heavy lift requirement, and in January Eurocopter heavy lift program chief Lutz Bertling said the company was seeking cooperation with an American manufacturer to meet the European Defence Agency’s (EDA) requirement for a Future Transport Helicopter (FTH) in the 2020 time frame. The Franco-German initiative for a heavy lift machine could dovetail with the U.S. Army’s JHL needs, providing “one solution or one common standard out of which individual European and U.S. solutions can be derived,” Bertling said. Whether that solution might come in the form of heavy tilt rotor designs being developed by Bell/Boeing and Lockheed Martin/Karem Aircraft remained in the realm of the theoretical. Very much in the realm of the practical was an ongoing analysis of the performance of America’s extant tilt-rotor in Iraq.
MV-22s had been in Iraq for nearly 15 months as the year opened, with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263 having kicked off operations at Al-Asad Airbase in October 2007. During the first three months of its deployment, the squadron reportedly completed more than 2,000 air support requests while logging more than 2,000 combat flight hours.
At a May 19, 2009, hearing on Navy and Marine Corps aviation procurement programs before the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, USN/USMC officials testified that the three Osprey squadrons deployed thus far had logged over 9,000 flight hours, carried over 40,000 passengers, and lifted over 2 million pounds of cargo in Iraq. The deployments comfirmed, they continued, that the V-22’s enhanced speed and range enable personnel and internal cargo to be transported faster and farther than is possible with the legacy helicopters it is replacing.
Despite the overall positive assessment, the services acknowledged that the aircraft had experienced mission-readiness and parts availability problems, systems and operational limitations, and flight-hour costs which degraded its effectiveness. A brief grounding of the 84-strong Osprey fleet in March following the discovery of loose bolts on the aircraft by Marines in Iraq was one of a number of issues enumerated in two Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports delivered in March and May.
Operational issues challenging the MV-22 include demand for spares, with the aircaft using components at greater than expected rates. For example, the Osprey’s 400-hour engine life fell short of the 500 to 600 hours estimated by program managers. Harsh desert conditions contributed to reduced engine life, as they do for other parts (gearboxes, generators) which have been in short supply, exacerbating mission readiness shortfalls. A complex and unreliable de-icing system further diminished readiness, with deployed MV-22s achieving an average mission capability (MC) rate of 62 percent. The figure is significantly below the minimum stated requirement of 82 percent, and the MC rates of legacy helicopters (Iraq-based CH-46Es and CH-53s averaged 85 percent or greater during the period).
Other issues identified include the Osprey’s lack of defensive armament, lack of all-weather radar, poor external visibility from the cabin, maneuvering limits, size and thermal damage from engine exhaust in shipboard scenarios, and internal cargo handling problems. Potential fixes are likely to add weight, negatively affecting the V-22’s speed, range, payload and troop-carrying capacity. Added to these concerns is the aircraft’s high cost of operation. According to the May GAO report, the Marine Corps’ V-22’s cost per flight hour is over $11,000 – more than double the targeted estimate.
With a procurement unit cost currently at $93.4 million each, a planned total buy of 458 aircraft (360 MV-22s, 50 CV-22s, 48 HV-22s) and approximately 181 purchased thus far, the Osprey is proving an expensive platform. Its operational and cost challenges have implications for its employment in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but the USMC, USN, and USAF remain convinced of its medium lift potential, as do possible foreign buyers from Israel to Japan. Even with its limitations, theater commanders in Iraq say the V-22 has effectively cut the battlefield in half.
The VH-71 won’t be cutting anything if the administration and the Defense Department stick to their guns. The other major early year story of 2009 ended with program termination. By the start of 2009 the presidential helicopter program’s 28 Agusta Westland EH101-based aircraft were projected to cost approximately $13 billion. On that basis they would be the most expensive helicopters ever produced, with unit cost hovering around $450 million.