The U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has made good on plans to modernize rotary-wing aviation across the Navy and Marine Corps. In January, the last MH-60S Knight Hawk off the production line completed the infusion of vertical replenishment, airborne mine countermeasures, and armed helo capabilities into Navy Helicopter Sea Combat squadrons. First flight of the CH-53K King Stallion last October began Development Testing of the Super Stallion replacement essential to Marine Corps Heavy Lift Helicopter squadrons. With the CH-46E Sea Knight formally retired in August 2015, the MV-22B Osprey tilt rotor dramatically increased the reach and speed of Marine Medium Lift squadrons. Multi-sensor MH-60R Seahawks in Helicopter Maritime Strike squadrons can now spot periscopes in crowded littoral waters and will integrate new weapons to counter swarming boat threats. Even without the intense operational demands of Afghanistan and Iraq, rotary-wing programs of record (PoR) continue to inject new technology into the fleet. They also position the Navy to share in a joint-service Future Vertical Lift (FVL) solution or some other next-generation rotorcraft.
The Navy expects its Seahawks and Knight Hawks to keep flying until around 2040. New UH-1Ys and AH-1Zs filling Marine Light Attack Helicopter squadrons (HMLAs) have 10,000-hour airframes good for about 30 years in service, and their digital avionics have processing power and throughput to grow. However, even the newest naval helicopters are limited by conventional rotors, drivetrains, and flight controls. The Army-led FVL initiative aims at faster, longer-range rotorcraft to replace helicopters starting with today’s UH-60 Black Hawk. Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstrators will fly advanced tilt-rotor and compound helicopter concepts next year to provide science and technology for FVL choices.
The 30,000-pound JMR demonstrators are nevertheless sized to an Army Mission Performance Specification. A notional Navy FVL derivative will have to fold and fit destroyer hangars. The Navy continues to support FVL, with NAVAIR leading development of common mission systems for the joint program. Service Life Assessment Programs for the MH-60R/S airframe will meanwhile enable air warfare leadership in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N98) to make an informed decision on when to embrace FVL or pursue some other development path. Until more is known about the benefits and costs of next-generation rotorcraft, NAVAIR continues to manage programs of record based on state-of-the-art technology.
Vipers and Venoms
The Marine Corps launched the H-1 Upgrade program in 1996 to improve the performance and maximize the commonality of its Bell attack and utility helicopters. With four-bladed composite rotors, totally new structures and dynamics, and integrated digital avionics, today’s UH-1Y Venom utility and AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters are the latest versions of Huey and Cobra long deployed with the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). Rule-of-thumb comparisons credit the UH-1Y Venom with twice the range and twice the payload of the UH-1N Twin Huey it replaced. The AH-1Z Viper offers twice the range or twice the payload of the two-bladed AH-1W. Both new helicopters dramatically enhance performance at high density altitudes and give the Marine Corps modern targeting sensors and a measure of digital connectivity with ground and sea units.
HMLAs ashore mix 15 AH-1Zs and 12 UH-1Ys. At sea with the MAGTF, the Marines rely on the 85 percent parts commonality between the two aircraft to save space and manpower. The UH-1Y achieved initial operational capability (I0C) in 2008 and was joined by the AH-1Z in 2011. By early 2016, the Marines had received 126 of 160 UH-1Ys and 46 of 189 AH-1Zs in the current program of record. With the UH-1Y delivered first to replace the aged Twin Huey, AH-1Z production now stretches to 2022. NAVAIR will also manage the Foreign Military Sale of 15 AH-1Zs to Pakistan, the first international sale of the Viper.
The Northrop Grumman integrated avionics system common to both helicopters manages crew workload and enhances situational awareness. The Marines want all their aircraft digitally connected to both their assault ships and the MAGTF ashore. H-1 interoperability plans call for full-motion video capability introduced this year and a next-generation multi-waveform radio – the Software Reprogrammable Payload (SRP) – around fiscal year 2021. The Marine Corps also expects both aircraft to receive integrated Aircraft Survivability Equipment (ASE) and advanced threat, missile, and laser warning systems. The UH-1Y and AH-1Z will ultimately share a common solution to brownout landings and other degraded visual environment (DVE) hazards. Common weapons already include the laser-designated rockets of the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS). The AH-1Z today uses the laser-seeking Hellfire missile and should achieve initial operational capability with the longer-range, multi-seeker Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM) in 2019.
The Bell Boeing MV-22B is now the medium-lift platform of the Marine Corps and within the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Aviation Combat Element carries rifle platoons and cargo from assault ships to landing zones ashore. The fast, long-ranged tilt rotor has proven itself a truly transformational platform: With three air refuelings, MV-22Bs of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron VMM-265 flew 4,700 miles from Okinawa, Japan, to Brisbane, Australia, in 2014. The Marines are more than 70 percent through plans to fill 18 active-duty and two Reserve squadrons, each with 12 aircraft, plus a fleet replacement training squadron allocated 20 MV-22s. Marine Ospreys are due for integrated aircraft survivability equipment and enhanced networking capabilities. The V-22 Aerial Refueling System (VARS) brings the MAGTF tanker capability in mid-fiscal year 2018. The Marines fired a Griffin missile from an MV-22 last March and continue to study all-axis weapons for the Osprey. A major MV-22 upgrade expected around 2035 is supposed to draw on FVL and other emerging technologies.
The MV-22B achieved IOC in June 2007. By early 2016, the Marines had 254 of 360 tilt rotors in the joint-service program of record. The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command meanwhile had 48 of 52 CV-22Bs planned. Forty-four of 48 CMV-22B tilt rotors long planned for the Navy have been funded to revitalize Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) capability. The tilt rotor carries up to 20,000 pounds of cargo internally or 15,000 pounds externally and offers the Navy different ways of doing both COD and Vertical On-board Delivery (VOD) missions. Where today’s fixed-wing COD Greyhound requires aircraft carriers steam into winds for launch and recovery, a tilt rotor from a distant shore base may land vertically on a carrier in transit or between deck cycles and use a deck otherwise locked with parked aircraft. The tilt rotor also offers a fast, long-range replacement for the big MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters now used for shore-based VOD. Production of Navy CMV-22Bs with extra fuel tanks begins in 2018 for deliveries in 2020. NAVAIR will also manage V-22 Foreign Military Sales aircraft – Japan has signed on as the first international Osprey customer.
Manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) promises to extend the reach, endurance, and utility of Navy and Marine Corps aviation. In 2014, Navy Squadron HSM-35 became the first composite expeditionary helicopter squadron to deploy the MQ-8B Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff Unmanned Air Vehicle (VTUAV) aboard ship alongside the manned, multi-sensor MH-60R Seahawk. The Northrop Grumman Fire Scout Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) includes the VTUAV, air vehicle operator and mission payload operator stations, a Tactical Common Data Link, Unmanned Common Automatic Recovery System, deck landing system, and related equipment. Experience with the MQ-8B gave the system an MQ-8C Endurance Upgrade that trades the 3,300-pound Sikorsky-Schweizer 333 helicopter for the 6,000-pound Bell 407, with more than twice the endurance and nearly three times the payload.
The MQ-8C program of record now calls for 40 air vehicles, including 38 operational and two test assets. An operational assessment at Point Mugu, California, last fall validated the performance, endurance, and reliability of the MQ-8C. Testing will continue in 2016 with the development of shipboard launch and recovery envelopes for the bigger helicopter on the littoral combat ship (LCS – now redesignated as fast frigate). The MQ-8B UAS is currently deployed on the USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) and near work-ups on the USS Coronado (LCS 4). The Fire Scout system is designed to operate from any air-capable ship, and changes in the LCS program and their impact on VTUAV production are still being evaluated by the Navy. Current plans hold MQ-8C production at two aircraft per year until the PoR is complete.