Future Army helicopter designs coudl look like the X2  (Source: Sikorsky)
Will the new helicopter program go the way of the Comanche?

Lots of focus is put on the “elderly nature” of certain types of aircraft in the various fleets in branches of the U.S. armed forces. The Air Force has been working for years to get a replacement for the aging fleet of tanker aircraft and is hard at work on the F-35 program despite continued setbacks.

While the Air Force is getting its replacement aircraft, some other branches of the armed forces like the Army are not as well funded and are not seeing their fleets of aging aircraft being replaced with new designs. Specifically the fleet of helicopters in the Army's fleet need to be addressed, and replacements need to be designed according to the industry. 

Aviation Week reports that while the Army is buying new rotorcraft such as the Apache and the Blackhawk helicopters, those designs are from the 1970's. Modern conflicts in Afghanistan and other countries have highlighted the shortcomings of these aircraft have highlighted the need for modern replacements. The Army has tried to replace its Apache attack helicopter previously with the Comanche, but the project was cancelled.

The Army is now working with other branches of the U.S. military to develop a Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstrator aircraft modeled on the Joint Advanced Strike Technology program that ultimately led to the design and development of the F-35. The industry is excited by the proposal of a new rotorcraft design, but worries that the program may be underfunded as other programs to replace aging helicopters have been. The aviation industry has formed a consortium called the Vertical Lift Consortium that brings together large and small companies with academia to help jointly design future rotorcraft.

Ned Chase from Amrdec said, "We’re funded to build two clean-sheet aircraft that may or may not be the same configuration."

The Army is counting on its own funding for the program and is counting on other research agencies like DARPA and NASA bringing funding to the program as well. Amrdec director of aviation Jim Snider said, "We plan to build two demonstrators, but we’d like to have enough money to build three."

Ultimately, the aircraft design that the JMR comes up with would have to be scalable in size and performance to replace all of the Army helicopters that serve various mission roles like scouting, attack, utility, and cargo and be appropriate for other branches of the military that use helicopters as well. The rotorcraft designs would have to scale as small as the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout and as large as a replacement for the CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Performance targets for the program include a speed of at least 170 knots and an unrefueled operational radius of 294 miles at 6,000 feet in 95F hot-and-high conditions. The aircraft would need to be able to loiter on station for 30 minutes in cargo and utility configurations and up to 120 minutes in attack and reconnaissance roles.

So far, initial studies have been finished and second phase configurations analysis has started. The solicitation of industry trade studies were to begin in fiscal 2011, but were delayed. The plan calls for configuration studies in 2011 to 2013 with a flight demonstrator around 2020 followed by a 5-year development plan leading to the new helicopter entering service in 2026.

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