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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Shifting Global Balance of Power

Rotor & Wing examines some of the newer helicopter variants available for procurement by international governments.

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

AAS-72X technical demonstration aircraft from EADS North America. EADS

At the U.S. Army Aviation’s annual exposition, Quad-A, EADS North America took along one of its three company-funded technical demonstrator aircraft (TDA) which was virtually a challenge of “we’re here; where’s everyone else?” The aircraft is known as the Armed Aerial Scout 72X.

The Armed Aerial Scout competition is one that virtually all the manufacturers will view as vital to win, given the hundreds of aircraft that will be procured. But in equal measure the U.S. Army is being ultra cautious as it does not want to have a procurement nightmare three times in a row—the first two being the Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche in 2004, then the Bell Textron 407 ARH in 2008.

The problem facing the Army is at what point does it make a decision and what exactly does it buy, having already spent a good deal of money on extending the life of its Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, while also trying to select an aircraft that will be able to project and develop its capabilities into the future.

This is a really difficult task. The lean financial times that now exist and are likely to continue through the procurement cycle of the AAS mean that it is likely to either be “off-the shelf” (in as much as military programs with their flood of additional capabilities can ever be regarding commercially designed aircraft) or offers such good value at a price that will not be prohibitively expensive.

Many of the contenders have good points: the EADS AAS-72X is a version of the already in-service UH-72 Lakota (both aircraft being based on Eurocopter’s EC145).

The selection of this aircraft would bring a premium saving in general maintenance costs and give the Army two large, similar fleets of aircraft. While the 72X is still very much in the developmental stage, EADS North American vice president/program manager for the AAS, Gary Bishop, said that “The Army’s requirements, when known, will dictate what the full offering will be and that they were waiting in anticipation for those requirements to be made public.”

Boeing’s AH-6i light reconnaissance helicopter.  Boeing

Boeing argues the economic potential of its AH-6i differently, in that the company claims its light reconnaissance aircraft will have an 85 percent commonality in parts with its bigger brother, the Apache Longbow. Also weighing in on the side of the AH-6i is the fact that Boeing has been conducting optionally manned trials with the aircraft for a number of years, and this capability is one that the Army is standing by as one that it feels needs to be inherent in any AAS platform that it selects. However, the AAS-72X team is also pursuing manned/unmanned teaming, as every competitor who eventually enters this competition will have to confirm. This manned/unmanned teaming requirement of the AAS could well be the lynchpin (alternatively the Achilles heel) of the whole program. It throws a spear-tip development project (expense written all over this) into a requirement for a cost-sensitive solution. Even with a Block approach (similar to the Apache Longbow program), this requirement is fraught with danger along the lines of Comanche (is it reconnaissance, or attack, or both). The Army customer will clearly need an internal understanding of what the manned/unmanned teaming option needs to achieve so that it does not start competing with unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Boeing’s AH-6i light attack/reconnaissance helicopter successfully completed its first flight on Sept. 16, 2009, seven months after work was started on the prototype aircraft. The production agreement between Boeing (holder of the design rights to the aircraft) and MD Helicopters, the company that is willing and eager to manufacture them at its plant in Mesa, Ariz. (next door to Boeing, in fact), still does not appear to have been completely finalized. Although MD Helicopters’ owner Lynn Tilton was present at Boeing’s stand during the Army Aviation annual exposition in Nashville, Tenn., during April, through mid-May there has been no official statement that the agreement to pursue collaborative production opportunities signed in July 2010 has been fully concluded and full demarcation of job share and responsibilities drawn up.

In October 2010, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency informed Congress that Saudi Arabia was potentially looking to order a wide range of helicopters from Boeing, Sikorsky and MD Helicopters through its Foreign Military Sales (FMS) procedure. The order was to include: 36 AH-64D Block III Apaches, 72 Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawks, 36 AH-6i light attack helicopters and 12 MD-530Fs, together with 243 T700-GE-701D engines, defense systems, weapons and a complete plethora of equipment and support.

The ‘Arab Spring’ movement across the Middle East has meant that further news of this huge military sale has been kept out of the headlines, especially as there has been a focus of late on the requirements of the Saudi National Guard, with overtones of control being asserted on the internal population rather than any external threat from old advisories in the region such as Iran. However, the inclusion of the AH-6i adds Saudi Arabia to Jordan as Middle East customers.

The Jordanian Air Force became the official military launch customer for the AH-6i when its government signed a letter of intent (LoI) in early 2010 for the helicopter.

The other, now confirmed, open competition in the U.S. is that surrounding the Air Force’s requirement for 93 aircraft in its Common Vertical Lift Support Program (CVLSP). The competition to replace the 62 old Bell Huey UH-1Ns of Air Force Global Strike Command and other agencies also demands an in-production, non-developmental, government or commercial off-the-shelf (GOTS/COTS) aircraft.

The Air Force expects to announce the beginning of the process with the request for proposal during the summer, with contract award in 2012 and aircraft in service by 2015. The role incorporates homeland security-type missions, including “nuclear weapon convoy escort, 24/7 adverse weather capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) emergency security response/operational support, and mass passenger transport/operational support airlift (OSA) in the National Capital region.”

Alongside that is the HH-60 recapitalization program. This will seek to find a replacement for the Air Force’s remaining 99 Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawks, currently being used for combat search and rescue (CSAR) both in the U.S. and operationally. AgustaWestland has already thrown its bid of the AW139M into the ring for consideration, stating that this type offers “30 percent more cabin volume and 50 percent more payload than the legacy CVLSP platform.”

International Updates

The parent company of Russian Helicopters, state-controlled defense group Obononprom, has withdrawn its plans for a partial floatation of the helicopter business after failing to attract enough investors. While Russian companies have found it hard to conduct successful floatations in recent times and reports indicate that the valuation of the company—set between $1.8 billion and $2.4 billion—was considered to be too high.

Investors unfamiliar with Russian Helicopters perhaps ought to be reminded that the organization, founded in 2007, represents the collective interests of Russia’s leading helicopter manufacturers: Mil, Kamov, Ulan-Ude, Kazan and Rostvertol. The organization was given a massive boost by the U.S. Army’s formation of a Non Standard Rotary Wing Aircraft (NSRWA) program office (PEO) in June 2010. This move was justified by the need for Army Aviation to support the non-standard Russian helicopters being used and procured by the Iraqi and Afghan military. NSRWA recently acquired 21 Mi-17s for the Afghan forces, and as U.S. soldiers are assisting not only in training but in Afghan operations, then the Army considered that a duty of care was required to safeguard its own people.

Russian Helicopters is a world player in the helicopter market. Statistics available during the floatation bid revealed that 214 helicopters had been built last year with organizational revenues at a reported $2.7 billion. Russian Helicopters claims a 13.5 percent share of global helicopter sales and there are 8,500 Russian helicopters registered around the world, giving a global market ownership of around 13 percent (these figures must be seen in the light of the organization’s dominance of the Russian and CIS markets of 85 percent—and the Russian government has recently confirmed that its own Ministry of Defense has signed the first of three long-term contracts for new aircraft deliveries over the period of 2011 to 2018 (although no numbers are available). These contracts are part of the Russian State Armament program for 2011–2020 and are not open to outside competition.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) competition to replace its aged fleet of 16 S-70B2 Seahawks (following the debacle that surrounded the procurement of Kaman’s SH-2G Seasprite helicopters) is gathering importance for the winner.

The two contenders in the Air 9000 Phase 8 Future Naval Aviation Combat System competition are the Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky team Romeo MH-60R against Australian Aerospace’s MRH-90 bid. The decision is expected by the end of June.

Sikorsky S-70i. The international Black Hawk variant took to Polish skies for the first time in November 2010. Sikorsky

Sikorsky is not only looking at the RAN order for 24 aircraft, but has the requirements of Saudi Arabia in mind. The Saudi Ministry of Interior is already the launch customer for at least three of the Polish-built S-70i (with a further 12 options), but last year’s stated intent to purchase 180 helicopters for the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) though a $25-billion package has 72 UH-60M Black Hawks as their preferred choice (in addition to 36 Block III Apaches and 36 AH-6i light attack helicopters and 12 MD530s). Keeping with the Middle East theme, there are also additional orders for Qatar and the UAE in the offing.

This April, Sikorsky announced that it has manufactured more than 100 MH-60R and 200 MH-60Seahawk multi-mission helicopters for the U.S. Navy. According to company records, the MH-60S has flown upwards of 370,000 flight hours since 2002 and the MH-60R has accumulated more than 90,000 since 2006.

This longevity of service must weigh heavily significantly with those in the RAN who have to decide on the type to be procured. While the MRH-90 has been ordered by a wide variety of international customers, its poor acquisition track record to date with the Army must be telling. However, once the Army has ironed out its issues with the aircraft, the Australian Defense Force would have a common platform at land and sea (and it would be more than ironic if that happened, given that the Army has just ditched its own Black Hawk fleet in favor of the TTL NH-90).

Sikorsky’s international success can also include the decision of the Turkish Government’s Defense Industry Executive Committee (DIEC) to acquire 109 Black Hawks based on the S-70i configuration. The contract is worth $3.5 billion. Sweden too has opted for 15 UH-60Ms, to be set up in the CSAR role for service in Afghanistan, to fill a gap left by the late running of its order for 13 tall-cabin TTL NH-90s.

The NH-90 has in many ways been a victim of its own success, and perhaps NH Industries collective avarice in trying to maximize sales during the early stages by agreeing to so many variations—a challenge even acknowledged officially by Eurocopter (one of the three partners alongside AgustaWestland and Fokker): “While the specific customization offered to customers has ensured the aircraft’s commercial success on the export market, it has also resulted in 23 different variants, which have entailed new challenges and increased complexity.” However, more than 530 NH-90 variants have been ordered around the world, indicating not only a great sales job but also many countries now with high expectations.

At Heli-Expo this year in March, Bell Helicopter announced its 407AH, a commercially available armed version that pushes on from where its failed ARH bid with the U.S. Army left off. Whether or not this will be entered into a request for proposal once the AAS competition begins can only be anticipated.

Suggested weapons systems may include a Dillon M134T minigun and M260 2.75” rocket launchers. At time of writing the 407AH was still not listed on the company’s website under military products, giving the feeling that it might be directed more toward the international parapublic/home defense/National Guard markets.

The second prototype AW159, TI2 (shown here), went airborne for the first time in October 2010. Initial deliveries are scheduled to begin later this year.  AgustaWestland

AgustaWestaland’s Lynx replacement, the AW159 Wildcat, seems to have survived (for now) the UK Ministry of Defense’s swinging cuts, with latest news reports suggesting even these haven’t been sufficient and more may be on the way.

But with the AW159 being manufactured at AgustaWestland’s Yeovil facility, the cutting of the 62 aircraft in the program (34 for the Army and 28 for the Royal Navy) would be disastrous for any attempt by the manufacturer to convert existing foreign military users of Lynx or Super Lynx to the newly designed helicopter. Only the Sultanate of Oman bought the Super Lynx in any significant number (16) through May.

Several Lynx operators have already decided to covert to other airframes such as the NH-90 maritime version, the NFH. These include the Norwegian Air Force (replacing its Mark 86 aircraft) and the Royal Netherlands Navy.

Outlook

The funding problems surrounding the development of new helicopters seem to ebb and flow. While Boeing and Bell rely on trusted stalwarts such as the Apache, Chinook, V-22, AH-1Z CobraHuey UH-1Y with the development of existing platforms such as the AH-6i and the 407AH, Eurocopter, Sikorsky and AgustaWestland are pushing ahead with new concept models including the X2/S-97, the X3 and other technologies (such as environmental) which may spin back to offer further improvements to their military range.

With the new economic dynamos of India and China kicking into high gear, there is the possibility that the likes of Russian Helicopters and Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) will find the right set of conditions to not only invest in their own S&T projects, but will also be able to attract the sharpest minds from around the world to lead them. Any rotorcraft OEM not committed to funding its own S&T programs, or waiting for government assistance which could now take several years to begin flowing again, could find themselves becoming fatally outpaced by new competitors. Programs such as the Joint Multi Role (JMR), emphasized by Army Aviation branch chief Maj. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield at Quad-A in April, with its target date of 2030, together with projects such as the Joint Heavy Lift requirement in the U.S. and Europe, need to be examined carefully by the OEMs. Those who have taken huge profits out of the defense contracting business to date need to take a hard look at the opportunities of the future and invest deeply now to guarantee their place at the top table in a decade’s time.

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