Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.
December 2nd, 2016 by Robert Andrew
From the beginning of the Korean War, and in every major theatre of conflict since, the battlefield helicopter has proven its worth and enhanced combat operations. To the colonial Americans of the 19th century, the names Kiowa, Apache, Blackhawk, Iroquois, Sioux and Chinook personified a fearsome, proud and often brutal adversary. To the active duty Americans of the 20th and 21st century, these same names represent a reliable, robust and invaluable supporting arm of contemporary war fighting. This generation of rotorcraft has served their masters and coalition partners alike with aplomb, but what comes next? This blog aims to explore what the future of vertical lift will look like, the enhanced capabilities it will afford and how the Australian Army can lead the Australian Defence Force towards operation of the next generation of aircraft.
What Comes After Helicopters?
The United States Department of Defense is currently developing a series of new rotary capabilities intent on maintaining their edge over potential adversaries. Having witnessed the (I believe) irrefutable edge that combat aviation affords a force, the Future Vertical Lift Program (FVL) marks a shift in the envisaged production and application of rotary wing aircraft. Development of the next generation of helicopters will see drastic improvements in force projection. Aircraft capable of covering greater distances, faster and into more challenging environments have a place in any future-minded force. Vertical lift aircraft are an integral part of the combined arms team; they can participate in and enhance almost every mission that the Australian Defence Force will conduct on the future battlefield.
While making assurances to maintain the relevance and lethality of existing aircraft, the FVL program has now committed to the development of next generation aircraft in the United States. With an aim to replace all of their existing helicopters, the first step in proving new technology was to shortlist concepts as ‘technology demonstrators’. The Sikorsky/Boeing SB-1 Defiant and the Bell/Lockheed Martin V-280 Valor are both set to compete in the medium utility category from 2017 in order to prove that their technology is viable, scalable and most importantly, satisfies the program’s stipulated performance criteria.
These criteria include being able to achieve speeds of 230 knots (current helicopters average 120 knots), have a minimum combat radius of 263 nautical miles (Chinook currently achieves approx. 200 nautical miles), and be able to outperform current aircraft in hot and high conditions. While only theoretical at this stage, the industry heavyweights have already produced modeling to suggest that these parameters are not only achievable, but they can be exceeded.
Next Generation Capability
Current helicopter design and technology has several factors affecting speed, and subsequently range and endurance. The development of compound helicopter features such as pusher-props and tilt rotor designs (not unlike the V-22 Osprey, but far more advanced), hope to enable the technology demonstrators to mitigate or completely nullified some of the existing restraints to helicopter forward flight envelopes. It is these breakthroughs that stand the project in good stead to become a viable replacement plan for all existing military helicopters currently in service.
FVL – An Australian Solution?
By virtue of the sheer size of Australia’s maritime area of responsibility, our nation’s tendency to populate the littoral environment, and our push into joint amphibious operations, the ADF stands to benefit insurmountably from aircraft that can go further, faster and for longer. In the past Australia has had great success working with and purchasing high-end military equipment from our ally, the United States. In line with Article 2 of the 1952 ANZUS treaty, Australia receives preferred status with regard to purchase of military equipment. This relationship has delivered tangible results as far back as the purchase of Australia’s first military helicopters during the Vietnam War, and as recently as receipt of ten CH-47F, on time and under budget.
The Defence White Paper 2016 outlines an extensive task list for the Australian Defence aviation community. It includes new aircraft for the Special Forces, the introduction of Sea Hawk platforms for Navy, a new or upgraded reconnaissance platform from 2020, enhanced medical evacuation capabilities, and the development of a search and rescue platform. All of this is to be done as the ADF continues to develop its joint capabilities in the form of amphibious warfare, arguably one of the most demanding missions a force can conduct. Now imagine that there were aircraft being developed that could operate in an attack role, a support role, and a CSAR role, with the same airframe, engines, communications and avionics. Interoperability along with commonality of maintenance and combat systems are achievable with critical and intimate integration into the FVL program.
The ADF is faced with an opportunity to maintain its technological edge as it continues to build a force for the future, with Army in a position to take the lead. Early integration into the FVL program lends itself to the construction of a joint aviation solution. The multi-faceted environment into which the Australian Government projects the ADF has seen a shift in the way the force is structured and indeed how it does business. It is often said that people are a force’s greatest capability, so what better opportunity to inculcate a tri-service team into a program capable of shaping the spectrum of future ADF operations? Such a team is at the heart of my DEF Idea Pitch.
I believe the next generation of rotary wing aircraft deserve the attention of the next generation of ADF leaders.
Questions for the Reader
About the author:
Robert Andrew is a serving Australian Army Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter pilot with a background as a cavalry NCO.
Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.