April 1, 2011  

Helo, goodbye

Replacing legacy helicopters requires a technology leap

The OH-58 Kiowa Warrior has been in Army service since 1969. For a helicopter approaching a half-century of service, you’d think it would be nearing the tail end of its usefulness.

You’d be wrong. The Kiowa is now the Army’s highest demand rotary-wing aircraft, flying more than 90 hours a month, about seven times the normal usage rate. The versatile Kiowa proves itself every day in Iraq and Afghanistan on missions that include reconnaissance, improvised explosive device detection, light attack and convoy escort.

And the Army plans to keep the Kiowa going into its pensioner years. Next year, the first “F” model will fly. The Army is modifying 368 “D” model Kiowas to “F” standard, each packed with new avionics, sensors and performance improvements designed to take the OH-58’s service life through 2025.

The Kiowa has warrior in its name, but all of the Army’s helicopters have proved themselves indispensable warriors in the current wars. And all will need replacing in the years soon following the OH-58F’s retirement. The CH-47 Chinook’s service life will end in 2035; the AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk’s in 2040.

The challenge to replacing these helicopter fleets is that it will likely require a technology leap. For the past 30-some years, the U.S. helicopter industry has been mostly building modified versions of existing platforms. With the exceptions of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and the newest unmanned rotorcraft, helicopter technology has advanced via increments and add-ons rather than seeking the next revolutionary step. Also over the last 20 years, the industry has consolidated and contracted in line with the general U.S. defense contractor consolidation and thinning demand for new helicopters. If the Army’s fleet of helicopters is coming to the end of bolt-on upgrade possibilities, then creating advanced replacements using all-new technologies not even known about or imagined when the Kiowa, Chinook, Apache and Black Hawk were on the design table will be necessary for at least some of these chopper warriors. The question is whether industry can develop the next generation of new-technology helicopters and deliver them at affordable prices and in a time frame that makes them still relevant to Army requirements by the time they are fielded. Recent history hints at a none-too-positive answer. The RAH-66 Comanche program, designed to replace the Apache, was canceled after more than 20 years of development efforts and only two prototypes built.

From an industry perspective, the lack of a new helicopter design for such a long spell has led to an atrophying of the U.S. design and engineering industrial base. As the Aerospace Industries Association pointed out in the 2009 report, “The unseen cost: Industrial base consequences of defense strategy choices,” that skill-set atrophy, combined with high legacy aircraft production, has a double impact. First, any new program would require significant investments to create new facilities and an additional production work force on top of existing resources that remain focused on legacy platforms. Second, industry’s ability to change rapidly in response to strategy or requirement changes is decreased.


Another controversy on the viability of next-generation helicopter development centers on research funding. While the Army and the Pentagon have pumped billions into helicopter acquisition, their investment in helicopter technology R&D has shrunk to relatively tiny proportions. The Army’s current annual spending on aviation R&D is about $100 million. That’s not to say that new helicopter technologies aren’t being developed. They are, but they are privately funded efforts, such as Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider high-speed scout/attack helicopter that the company is developing on its own dollar.

Small companies argue that relying on the few remaining established helicopter producers to develop the next breed of helicopters will lock out new entrants and therefore stifle competition and innovation. Linked to this argument, and a growing area of contention, is the Defense Department’s Independent Research and Development (IR&D) program. Thousands of IR&D projects, representing billions of investment dollars, are conducted annually. The program encourages defense contractors to independently initiate and conduct technology research projects. The Pentagon then reimburses a portion of permissible IR&D costs as indirect expenses under DoD contracts.

The Sikorsky X2 experimental compound helicopter demonstrator program, which last year set an unofficial helicopter speed record of 225 knots and which is the base for the Raider design, was developed using IR&D. According to a DoD information pamphlet, roughly half of IR&D total costs have been reimbursed by DoD.

The law prohibits DoD from directing companies on the technology programs they pursue under IR&D, although it does provide contractors with “available information useful to their planning and research,” so they can best respond to Defense needs.

But IR&D is now coming under closer scrutiny as part of overall DoD acquisition reform efforts. In March, the Pentagon announced a proposed amendment that would require contractors to report their IR&D projects generating annual costs of more than $50,000. DoD says the new rule would correct “a loss of linkage between funding and technology purposes” of IR&D projects. In other words, the penny has dropped that more transparency is needed if the Pentagon can be assured that the IR&D dollars for which it reimburses contractors are spent on technology research projects that directly benefit new platforms and systems the armed forces need.

A bigger question, however, is whether the Pentagon should continue spending billions on a sweeping, general R&D program over which, by law, it has little oversight or control. The more efficient and productive path, perhaps, would be for the Pentagon to instead direct research and development money to specific service technology needs, such as developing a new-generation fleet of helicopters. Large and small companies could then compete for system-specific R&D contracts, such as a new type of rotor blade that makes a helicopter operate faster or quieter. That might encourage more start-up companies to get into the helicopter design business via their own innovative technologies, regardless of whether they have private R&D funds in the bank.

Whatever route the Army and DoD take on future helicopters, the time to be thinking about it is now. Given current life-extension plans, new aircraft are going to start to be needed just 14 years from now. The Army is uncertain whether it can produce the new Ground Combat Vehicle in less than seven years, so it’s a safe bet that an all-new helicopter is going to take considerably longer to acquire. More urgently, if the Pentagon doesn’t signal some time soon that it is serious about a new rotorcraft fleet, it may find that the only American helicopters it can buy are the Kiowa, the Apache, the Black Hawk and the Chinook.

Karen Walker is the editor of Armed Forces Journal