New Choppers, New Capabilities on the Horizon for US Army

Officer candidates dismount a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters upon arriving at the Kansas Army National Guard Range and Field Training Site in Salina, June 2013

Officer candidates dismount a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters upon arriving at the Kansas Army National Guard Range and Field Training Site in Salina, June 2013 (The National Guard)

After more than fifty years of remarkable service from helicopter combat and airlift platforms like the Apache and the Black Hawk, the United States Army has taken the first crucial step toward obtaining replacements for decades to come. The Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center recently issued four contracts to major development firms to begin work on designs for a family of future helicopters that would be phased into service sometime after 2030.

Development of the “next generation” family of helicopters will begin immediately and testable prototypes are expected by 2017. The new choppers will eventually replace all current medium-lift platforms and the vast majority of those combat models presently in use.

And, of course, “next generation” means more than just one-for-one replacement. Any platform coming from these contracts will be expected to exceed the operational standards currently applied to the Army’s Apache, Cobra and Black Hawk inventory, particularly when it comes to speed, range, serviceability and survivability. Indeed, the Army has stated a preference for the development of one or few multipurpose platforms that achieve all of these improvements, as well as an increase in payload carrying capacity, under the auspices of the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program.

As the Army’s program executive officer for aviation notes, the FVL initiative is an essential policy regime for future procurement. By working to ensure that the aviation industry’s most promising technologies also become the most accessible for future aircraft designs, FVL will, much like similar programs adopted by the Air Force and Navy, allow the government to reduce costs and mitigate risks with the concentrated packaging of next generation advancements into a single or small family of platforms. The prospective horizons of the FVL program will be known within a couple of years, as the technology demonstrator proposals from helicopter makers AVX, Bell, Karem and Sikorsky are due within nine months.

Though new heliborne workhorses and support assets might seem as routine as new machine guns, there are solid strategic and tactical reasons that an upgraded helicopter force will likely matter in the future as much as the latest in communications and guided weapons’ technologies.

The evolution of American military tactics over the course of the last half century has emphasized the use of helicopters and other vehicles as the ancillary suppliers of highly mobile frontline units. The adaptation of doctrine toward quicker and harder hitting offensives in the post-Vietnam era has only strengthened the need for platforms whose capabilities perfectly complement the aerial, amphibious and ground forces deployed in forward theaters.

A Black Hawk helicopter prepares to take off from Forward Operating Base Bostick, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, July 16, 2012

A Black Hawk helicopter prepares to take off from Forward Operating Base Bostick, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, July 16, 2012 (US Army)

Difficult and often mountainous combat terrains in Afghanistan and Iraq have only deepened the Army’s focus on developing more effective and more capable platforms to support rapid or distant deployments. A common issue encountered in areas where few units cover a significant battle sector was that infantry could be deployed via the tilt-rotor capable V-22 Osprey transport quickly but would have to either delay or wait a significant amount of time before UH-60 and other craft could deliver support artillery and other heavy equipment.

And once in combat zones, despite the necessity of their use to transport troops and hardware, support helicopters often proved to be viable targets for ground based enemy combatants with man mountable ordnance. From the point of initial engagement with Iraq in 2003, there were 125 incidents involving helicopter casualties for American and coalition forces.

New choppers will hopefully, if the spirit of FVL is manageably incorporated into the design, cost and production of a new family of platforms, solve many of these issues. A measure of stealth capability and significant speed increases, perhaps with the potential introduction of Lockheed Martin/Bell’s V-280 Valor adaptation of the tilt-rotor Osprey, will allow for greater flexibility of deployment and supply during operation for Army and Marine Corps units.

Moreover, the Army hopes to be able to deliver troops and materiel from greater range and with greater confidence in the ability of delivery aircraft to reliably work beyond the functional thresholds of contemporary models.

The Army’s stated desires also speak to the expectations of the service chiefs and strategic planners in preparing for possible future areas of operation. Such platforms, with improved range and speed, are sure to strengthen the deployment of naval forces against maritime security threats.

And these helicopters will also undoubtedly be deployed in the Pacific in support of the peacetime and, potentially, wartime, actions of partners like Australia, Japan and South Korea.

That said, the extent to which the developments of the Army’s helicopter replacement program will reveal information about the degree of consideration awarded to Pacific concerns by military leadership will not be clear for some time — at least until the products of the program’s initial phases, informed and guided by the FVL criterion, are revealed.