Next-Gen Com­bat Heli­copters

Tech­nol­ogy has been tardy in ad­dress­ing speed and de­sign prob­lems of rotary-wing plat­forms; but there are some de­vel­op­ments afoot in the ver­ti­cal lift ma­chines


The rotary-wing plat­form, lag­ging be­hind fixed-wing due to com­par­a­tively greater tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenges, pro­vided re­mark­ably al­lur­ing op­tions to the com­man­der on the bat­tle­field, ever thirst­ing for a high van­tage point, speed of ma­noeu­vring and the flex­i­bil­ity of quick re­de­ploy­ment. Viet­nam, Korea and Iraq as also sev­eral other mil­i­tary con­flicts, helped the he­li­copter to ma­ture from ca­su­alty evac­u­a­tion to in­creas­ingly more of­fen­sive tasks such as at­tack, anti-tank, sup­pres­sion of en­emy air de­fences, re­con­nais­sance and ob­ser­va­tion, air­lift of troops, cargo re­sup­ply and fire fight­ing. The term com­bat heli­copters is used loosely to in­clude all rotary-wing plat­forms and in­creas- in­gly, all ver­ti­cal lift plat­forms, that are armed and equipped to en­gage tar­gets or to per­form other mil­i­tary mis­sions in the bat­tle­field or else­where such as ter­ror­ism in ur­ban sce­nar­ios. Some self de­fence is im­plicit to the term and un­armed craft per­form­ing tasks in the bat­tle­field are ex­cluded. Mar­itime roles fit­ting this def­i­ni­tion loosely, are in­cluded in keep­ing with the dis­ten­sion of the ‘bat­tle­field’ into the more com­pre­hen­sive ‘bat­tle space’.


While fixed-wing com­bat air­craft de­sign has at­tained ‘fifth­gen­er­a­tion’ sta­tus and is knock­ing on the doors of ‘sixth-gen-

er­a­tion’ re­search and devel­op­ment, he­li­copter de­sign largely still con­forms to the tad­pole-like ap­pear­ance it was orig­i­nally born with. Tech­nol­ogy has been tardy in ad­dress­ing speed and de­sign prob­lems of rotary-wing plat­forms; but there are some de­vel­op­ments afoot in the ver­ti­cal lift ma­chines (Ver­ti­cal Take Off and Land­ing or VTOL) which de­part from the tad­pole en­vis­age­ment. There are also changes be­ing made to the old shape to in­cor­po­rate new fea­tures of de­sign for higher speeds, stealth, ma­noeu­vra­bil­ity, agility, sur­viv­abil­ity and crash wor­thi­ness. How­ever, the evo­lu­tion is ag­o­nis­ingly slow. So, is there a Next-Gen Com­bat He­li­copter on the hori­zon? While the term has not found a place in the mil­i­tary ro­tor­craft lex­i­con as yet, the United States (US) has taken the lead in in­vest­ing money and in­tent into a for­mal pro­gramme to ad­dress the prob­lem of de­sign­ing fu­tur­is­tic heli­copters. The pro­gramme is called Fu­ture Ver­ti­cal Lift (FVL) and has evoked con­sid­er­able in­ter­est amongst avid watch­ers of mil­i­tary aero­space de­sign and devel­op­ment.


The US is inar­guably the world leader in use of mil­i­tary heli­copters. The US Army alone op­er­ates more than 4,000 heli­copters in var­i­ous mil­i­tary roles and, with an eye on the fu­ture (next-gen?) he­li­copter de­sign, it took the lead in en­cour­ag­ing VTOL de­sign with a com­bi­na­tion of ro­tor and fixed-wing for fu­ture use. The pro­gramme is called Fu­ture Ver­ti­cal Lift (FVL) and its ob­jec­tive time frame tar­gets 2030. To­wards the con­sum­ma­tion of FVL, a US Army-led pro­gramme, the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) Tech­ni­cal Demon­stra­tor, has been ini­ti­ated with a bold wish-list with in­puts from the Coast Guard, Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand and NASA. The fi­nal in­tent is to pro­duce VTOL de­signs with sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved avion­ics, electronics, range, speed of 200 knots, sur­viv­abil­ity, op­er­at­ing al­ti­tudes and pay­loads. The “multi-role” part of the pro­gramme al­ludes to sev­eral roles rang­ing from at­tack con­fig­u­ra­tions to cargo, mede­vac, search and res­cue as also anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare. Orig­i­nally, three Ca­pa­bil­ity Sets were planned in 2009: JMR Light (Scout ver­sion to re­place the OH-58 Kiowa), JMR Medium-Light, JMR Medium (Util­ity and At­tack ver­sions). Later on, two more sets were added: JMR Heavy (Cargo ver­sion to re­place the CH-47 Chi­nook) and JMR Ul­tra (Ul­tra­sized ver­sion for ver­ti­cal lift air­craft with per­for­mance sim­i­lar to fixed-wing tac­ti­cal trans­port air­craft). Even­tu­ally, these new de­signs are ex­pected to re­place 25 cur­rent ro­tor­craft types in use with the US mil­i­tary, not just the US Army.

In the first phase, the stress has been on the “Medium” cat­e­gory which is planned as the re­place­ment for the US Army’s Siko­rsky UH-60 Black Hawk and the Boe­ing AH-64 Apache. The main con­tenders for this cat­e­gory are Bell

Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence is pro­gress­ing at a spec­tac­u­lar pace and man­ma­chine in­ter­face is be­ing in­vaded by new trends in au­ton­o­mous, hybrid and op­tion­ally pi­loted ma­chines

He­li­copter and a Siko­rsky/ Boe­ing team. Bell is of­fer­ing a next-gen­er­a­tion tilt-ro­tor, V-280, evolved from its V-22 Os­prey, which tilts its huge ro­tor blades be­tween ver­ti­cal and hor­i­zon­tal po­si­tions to gain both the best fea­tures of a he­li­copter (ver­ti­cal take­off and land­ing) and those of a pro­pel­ler plane (fuel-ef­fi­cient speed for long range flight). The Siko­rsky-Boe­ing De­fi­ant looks more like a tra­di­tional he­li­copter, but is based on Siko­rsky’s “X2” tech­nique of com­bin­ing two counter-ro­tat­ing ro­tors, one on top of the other, with a pusher pro­pel­ler at the tail. The V-280 car­ried out its first cruise flight in May this year and hit a top speed of 190 knots. Bell hopes to be able to in­crease the max­i­mum speed to 280 knots. The Siko­rsky X2 pro­gramme is pro­gress­ing on the S-97 Raider (six troops and ex­ter­nal weapons) and the SB-1 De­fi­ant which will be a much heav­ier model. These two plat­forms are a demon­stra­tion of the X2’s scal­a­bil­ity. The US FVL pro­gramme’s ob­jec­tive of re­plac­ing all US mil­i­tary heli­copters with a fam­ily shar­ing com­mon tech­nolo­gies, but not com­mon plat­forms, is laud­able and sure to bring re­mark­able re­sults over the next two decades.

While the US is the leader in the pusuit of newer VTOL de­signs which could pro­vide a mar­ginal ad­vance­ment over cur­rent de­signs to be termed a gen­er­a­tion leap, other tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced aero­space pow­ers are also en­gaged in look­ing for sig­nif­i­cant bounds into bet­ter VTOL per­for­mance. In Eu­rope, Air­bus Heli­copters pro­duced a pro­to­type of the X-3, “high­speed long-range hybrid he­li­copter” which had a set of pro­pel­lers for for­ward mo­tion in­stead of a tail ro­tor and was one of the air­craft that have flown un­der “high-hot” con­di­tions (6,000 feet at 95 de­grees Fahren­heit) like a ro­tor­craft with air­plane­like speed. The X-3 demon­strated a speed of 255 knots in level flight and 263 knots in a shal­low dive on June 7, 2013, beat­ing the Siko­rsky X2’s un­of­fi­cial record set in Septem­ber 2010, thus be­com­ing the world’s fastest non-jet aug­mented com­pound he­li­copter. On May 21, 2016, Air­bus had filed a patent for X-3, claim­ing it as the world’s fastest ro­tary­wing air­craft. How­ever, since then no fur­ther de­vel­op­ments seem to have taken place on the type.


Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence (AI) is pro­gress­ing at a spec­tac­u­lar pace and man-ma­chine in­ter­face is be­ing in­vaded by new trends in au­ton­o­mous, hybrid and op­tion­ally pi­loted ma­chines. Un­doubt­edly, AI will com­ple­ment the on­go­ing devel­op­ment ini­tia­tives in VTOL tech­nolo­gies to add to the com­plex­ity and em­ploy­a­bil­ity of heli­copters in the fu­ture. The rapid trans­gres­sion of AI into he­li­copter tech­nol­ogy and in­deed air­craft tech­nol­ogy, raises the ques­tion of manned ver­sus un­manned tech­nolo­gies and, in the light of re­cent de­vel­op­ments, the ad­van­tages of in­te­grated manned-un­manned mis­sions which have ren­dered bet­ter re­sults in terms of tar­get de­tec­tion and en­gage­ment. How­ever, high cost of devel­op­ment has kept the mil­i­tary he­li­copter a peg lower than the fixed-wing com­bat air­craft in the bud­getary hi­er­ar­chy. A glar­ing hold back in heli­copters has been the in­tro­duc­tion of Fly-By-Wire (FBW). Even the US, glob­ally the most af­flu­ent, is com­ing around to the idea of mod­ernising heli­copters only for some spe­cialised units. Less pros­per­ous na­tions would ob­vi­ously set­tle for sim­i­lar or worse com­pro­mise so­lu­tions. An­other is­sue with fu­ture heli­copters is their sur­viv­abil­ity in the emerg­ing dense and so­phis­ti­cated air de­fence environment in the bat­tle­field. US Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee’s Air­land sub­com­mit­tee had queried the US Army ear­lier this year and Lt Gen Paul Ostrowski re­sponded in the con­text of the JMR Tech­nol­ogy Demon­stra­tor pro­gramme that, “It is one of our top pri­or­i­ties within Fu­ture Ver­ti­cal Lift”. He added that the US Army was in­vest­ing heav­ily to de­velop the abil­ity to in­ter­dict on­com­ing mis­siles in flight.


The UH-60 Black Hawk, a tried and tested com­bat he­li­copter, has been around for four and a half decades. Even as the FVL pro­grammes seek to pro­duce a bet­ter re­place­ment, it is now be­ing tech­no­log­i­cally up­graded and be­ing given a new weapons sys­tem retro­fit pro­duced by Siko­rsky. The plan is to use it for an­other five decades. The point worth not­ing here is that ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy are of use to he­li­copter evo­lu­tion in two ways; firstly, new and in­ven­tive changes are be­ing made to ro­tor­craft and VTOL de­sign un­der new projects and pro­grammes. Sec­ondly, new tech­nolo­gies are be­com­ing avail­able for up­grades to ac­tive mod­els so as to en­hance their per­for­mance, sur­viv­abil­ity, ca­pa­bil­ity and mis­sion adapt­abil­ity. Rather self ev­i­dently, up­grades re­quire much lower fi­nan­cial out­lay than a new he­li­copter de­sign, al­though the up­graded he­li­copter may not turn into a new gen­er­a­tion he­li­copter in terms of per­for­mance. It is thus be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear that the op­tion of upgrading ex­ist­ing types would con­tinue for the next decade or so. As a corol­lary, a new gen­er­a­tion of heli­copters, not­with­stand­ing the FVL pro­gramme, ap­pears dis­tant and neb­u­lous de­spite the use of the term Next-Gen Heli­copters by some orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers on their of­fi­cial web­sites.

The high cost of devel­op­ment has kept the mil­i­tary he­li­copter a peg lower than the fixed­wing com­bat air­craft in the bud­getary hi­er­ar­chy




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