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Thursday, May 1, 2008

A U.S. Heavy-Lift Study With a Twist

MILITARY | HEAVY LIFT

The U.S. Army and Air Force have agreed on a plan to answer the question of what a next-generation, intra-theater lift aircraft should look like, and it has a twist.

The proposed Joint Future Theater Lift study, laid out in a late March agreement and under review last month by service leaders, calls for the largely fixed-wing Air Force to assess whether a new rotary-wing aircraft best meets the intra-theater lift requirements of future military operations. The Army is to address whether an advanced short takeoff and landing fixed-wing aircraft is the answer.

The proposal envisions a $2.5 billion system design and development program. The result, as expected now, would be a Lockheed C-130-sized or larger aircraft that would carry a 28-ton payload. The proposal would replace the Army-led Joint Heavy Lift initiative. In describing the new plan, a top Army requirements official referred to it as "the program formerly known as Joint Heavy Lift."

That effort, the U.S. Army’s aspiration to a multi-service, next-generation heavy-lifter, is spearheaded by the Army Aviation Technology Directorate at Fort Eustis, Va. Its leaders had hoped to win support for a flyoff among the most viable candidates.

The program has funded design work by Sikorsky Aircraft on a C-130-sized High-Speed Lifter based on its X2 technology demonstrator, a two-wing version of Bell Helicopter/Boeing’s Quad Tilt-Rotor, and Karem Aircraft’s Optimum-Speed Tilt-Rotor, a cargo aircraft-sized bird with twin rotors. With Army prodding, Karem in March teamed with Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works on development of its concept.

The Joint Heavy Lift program seems to have been overcome by requirements creep. It was aimed at carrying elements of the Army’s Future Combat Systems. But that program’s target payload has ballooned, most recently from 20 to 30 tons.

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