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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Money for Old Rope: Demise of the Manned Helicopter?

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

With the traditional festival of flight that is usually encapsulated by Farnborough Airshow (alternating in the odd years with Le Bourget in Paris), the outlook for military rotorcraft orders from Europe is not good. For those who still do not wish to believe that the good times of defense spending in the west are over—at least in the short to mid-term—Dr. John Chipman, director-general and chief executive of the UK’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) stated in March: “Since the financial crisis in 2008, there has been a convergence in European and Asian defense spending levels. While per capita spending levels in Asia remain significantly lower than those in Europe, on the current trend Asian defense spending is likely to exceed that of Europe, in nominal terms, during 2012.”

Chipman notes that Asia is becoming increasingly militarized and according to the IISS, has over 30 percent of the regional share of defense spending. Much rotorcraft development is being conducted through joint ventures with western manufacturers, although many of these are in the civil or military support helicopter categories.

The defense budgets of European nations have been really hit by the economic turbulence of the national debit of several countries: Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain being the most talked about. According to research compiled by Defense News (June 4, 2012), Greece has had its defense budget cut by a huge 47.3 percent, Spain by 40.9, Italy by 21.4 and even the UK has suffered with a 19.4 percent cut (all figures comparing 2008 to 2012 budgets).

So is there any hope of selling military rotorcraft to customers unable to invest into new high cost research and development programs? Perhaps there is.

One such area where the aerospace defense industry might be able to claw back some revenue is through innovation—but using old platforms as a base instead of designing new uses. If new build helicopters are going to be difficult to sell, then how about supplementing the order books with older in-service aircraft reconfigured and given a new lease of life? A number of examples immediately come to mind.

In 2010 the U.S. State Department and Sikorsky entered into an agreement for the purchase of 110 modernized S-61Ts, some of which are being used by the U.S. government abroad in locations including Iraq and Afghanistan. With the addition of composite main rotor blades, a state-of-the-art glass cockpit, modular wiring harness, and modern survivability and force protection enhancements the aircraft—although not of modern design—is set to do the job required by the State Department. Incidentally, the first Sea King prototype flew in March 1959. The UK is looking to stand down its fleet of search and rescue Sea Kings, together with those used by the Commando Helicopter Force. Perhaps a new use could be found for them, if not in the UK then in the resale market.

The rebirth of the military Little Bird, either in the guise of Boeing’s technically advanced AH-6 or now MD Helicopter’s more modest MD540F, both have their origins in the original MD500 series design that traces its history back to the early 1960s. An unmanned version of Boeing’s AH-6 exists and has already undertaken several years of trials. Some Middle Eastern countries are believed to be close to ordering Boeing’s aircraft as a reconnaissance/light attack aircraft.

There is even a proposal to turn the UK’s British Army Gazelle helicopters into basic unmanned ISR platforms for the Royal Navy. The Aerospatiale-designed Gazelle first flew in 1967, but now with the assistance of Northrop Grumman and the addition of a vehicle management system similar to that being used by the U.S. Navy’s MQ-8B Fire Scout, it is envisaged that the result could result in a maritime vertical take-off and landing unmanned air system (VTUAS). Let’s not forget that the Fire Scout itself was derived from a Schweizer 300 series aircraft first flown in the late 1980s.

The final example of a repurposed aircraft would be Kaman’s unmanned K-Max, which is undergoing extended field trials with the U.S. Army’s Marine Corps in Afghanistan. Originally the K-Max 1200, although the production line has been closed for nearly a decade, if the USMC really decides that they like the concept … then will Kaman have a plan to deliver?

There is an unmistakeable theme running through this for most of the platforms, and that is the veering towards the unmanned development of rotorcraft. It may be, given the expense of developing new manned helicopters, that by converting older platforms for UAS type rolls (which are expanding all the time), this could be one of the key points where we look back at the substantial demise of the manned helicopter.
Related: Unmanned Helicopter News

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