Major players in the rotorcraft market are teaming—some as odd bedfellows—as defense customers in the U.S. and Europe eye purchases.

In Europe, industry is posturing for a potential Franco-German heavy-lift helicopter program despite a lack of clarity from customers on what the requirements for such a project will be.

Stateside, the U.S. Air Force is expected to make yet another attempt at buying a replacement for its HH-60G Pave Hawk, which is used to rescue downed pilots behind enemy lines. The U.S. Marine Corps is expected to kick off a competition next year for its presidential helicopter replacement program. Both projects were botched by their respective services, sending both back to the drawing board for years to revalidate requirements.

These potential programs, on both sides of the Atlantic, are a welcome change of pace for the industry heavy-hitters who have been working mostly on existing production and upgrade projects after a relative drought of R&D dollars.

Now, the industry teams are shaping up to allow the major players to potentially share risk and—if they win the work—the rewards. Boeing and EADS, bitter global rivals in the civil aircraft market, have formalized a relationship to jointly explore rotorcraft opportunities globally. The companies signed a memorandum of understanding to this effect in 2009 with a renewal last October. It was later followed with a more specific agreement to examine options for the potential heavy-lift rotorcraft program in Europe, which will be the first practical application of the collaboration.

Boeing Military Aircraft President Chris Chadwick says he is open to unconventional partnerships to explore risk-sharing and, potentially, penetrate new markets. The team, while codified through the agreement, is far from firm, as questions linger about the heavy-lift project's viability.

At issue is just how much European customers are willing to pay for requirements above what industry can provide today with aircraft such as Boeing's CH-47 and Sikorsky's CH-53K.

German and French officials are keen on transporting large pieces of equipment internally instead of relying on external slings. And the size of some of this equipment is driving a need for a larger cabin, raising the question of whether Europe is willing to go to a new design rather than off-the-shelf models.

Germany's head of army aviation, Brig. Gen. Reinhard Wolski, says this requirement was derived from lessons learned in Afghanistan. “Low flying at night, at high speed, is some kind of life insurance,” he told a heavy-lift helicopter transport panel at the ILA Berlin Air Show. “That puts quite an effort on [industry for] building the airframe as well as our cargo compartment.” Additionally, military customers are eager to purchase a helicopter that can still conduct missions with only one engine, another design stresser.

While such a large lifter—the notional target is an aircraft capable of carrying 32 metric tons of cargo—is desirable, it could be financially unattainable.

“Clearly, we could go build it,” says one industry official. “The question is: Does it make sense?” The Pentagon has also funded research to support a notional heavy-lift helicopter program, but a firm timeline and funding have been lacking.

Adding to the ambiguity about European requirements is an upcoming shift in the German military project management. The Luftwaffe is poised to assume oversight of the heavy-lift effort from the army on Jan. 1, 2013.

To keep their options on the table, Boeing and Eurocopter intend to continue work on their large tandem rotor-lifter concept, on view at the Berlin show as a beefed-up Chinook.

Boeing would bring its tandem-rotor technology to the project, while Eurocopter has extensive contacts in the French and German militaries, and could handle some parts and composites work.

Sikorsky also has design options that would include a platform larger than its CH-53K, which is now being developed by the Marine Corps.

However, both U.S.-based companies—Boeing and Sikorsky—also see an opportunity in offering off-the-shelf options that could reduce the cost for Europe to procure a system and, potentially, operate it.

Boeing, with EADS as a partner, could offer the CH-47F, which is now in production for the U.S. Army at the company's Philadelphia plant.

Sikorsky's option, the CH-53K—which is being designed to roughly double the load of today's CH-53E while maintaining the same aircraft footprint for shipboard use—is less mature than Boeing's concept, but the Marine Corps appears satisfied with the program's progress. The first CH-53K ground-test vehicle is slated for delivery in early October, says Col. Robert Pridgeon, the Marines' program manager. Two of three engines are already installed on the aircraft.

A bare-head light-off without attached rotor blades is planned for the second quarter of 2013; a powered test with blades should follow within another eight months. Sikorsky is on contract to build four flight-test articles, and a low-rate, initial production decision is slated for 2015.

Because Sikorsky is not yet through testing, Boeing may see an opportunity to push Europe for the Chinook in hopes of whetting the customer's appetite before Sikorsky can demonstrate its off-the-shelf candidate.

In the meantime, another industry pairing has emerged with Northrop Grumman as prime and AgustaWestland (owned by the Italian Finmeccanica conglomerate). They would offer the AW101 platform for the U.S. Air Force Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) project and the Marine Corps presidential helo replacement.

Though Boeing's CH-47 previously won the U.S. Air Force Pave Hawk replacement effort, the selection was dashed after procurement irregularities surfaced. The AW101 won the Marines' last attempt at buying a presidential helicopter under the prime control of Lockheed Martin, but that project was terminated owing to poor management and requirements creep.

Northrop Grumman is not known for its rotorcraft work, aside from integrating mission systems into the Fire Scout product line. However, the company is approaching the partnership with AgustaWestland as an opportunity to feature its expertise as in integrator coupled with an off-the-shelf 101, says Scott Winship, Northrop Grumman's lead for rotorcraft projects. “We don't want to learn everything that needs to be learned about rotorcraft,” he says; as prime, Northrop plans to defer that expertise and work to AgustaWestland, he adds. But the Italian company clearly needed a U.S. partner to manage its bids, and “we saw a pattern of failure that we can turn around” from the previous Marine One program, he says. “It appears we cam do better, so we jumped in.”

Gaining a foothold in this market would be a success for Northrop Grumman during a tough time for the company. It is fighting to keep its Global Hawk line with the Air Force alive, and the service has passed on its efforts to pour more money into its E-8C ground surveillance program. Northrop appears to be filling a void left by the dissolved relationship between Lockheed Martin and AgustaWestland.

Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky, meanwhile, remain teamed to pursue the CRH and Marine One projects, a partnership in place for about two years.