Industry could find out soon just where aviation comes in the U.S. Army's priorities as it awaits a decision on whether procurement of a new armed scout helicopter can proceed without impacting long-term plans to develop advanced rotorcraft to replace its utility and attack fleets.

Helicopters have played a vital role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Army faces tough decisions on budget priorities in every area of capability from soldiers to weapons and armor to aviation, and its carefully wrought rotorcraft modernization plans are at risk.

A decade of hot-and-high operations has underlined the shortcomings of today's 1970s-vintage helicopter designs. The shortfalls are particularly acute in the scout mission, after two attempts to replace the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior ended in cancellation. But the Army's aviation branch has decided against developing an all-new scout in the near term, and opted for an off-the-self solution, so it can afford replacements for its larger Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk and Boeing AH-64 Apache fleets in the long term. These would be developed through the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstration and follow-on Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Medium program. Despite the Army's planning, the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) and FVL could end up competing for funds, forcing a choice by the leadership.

Bids to build the JMR air-vehicle demonstrators were submitted in March. The Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD) plans to award contracts late this year for two demonstrators to fly in 2017 and is looking for speeds up to 230 kt.—at least 50% faster than today's conventional helicopters.

Bell Helicopter has proposed a tiltrotor—but without its V-22 teammate Boeing, which has joined forces with Sikorsky to offer a coaxial-rotor compound helicopter. EADS North America has submitted a bid, but it is not revealing its chosen configuration. AVX Aircraft has proposed a coaxial-rotor dual ducted-fan design, and it has not been confirmed whether Piasecki Aircraft, which had been working on compound configurations with Boeing until the Sikorsky tie-up, has submitted a bid. AgustaWestland says it will not participate in the technology demonstration phase, but it does not rule out entering the FVL competition when the specifications emerge.

Sikorsky's X2 high-speed coaxial-rotor configuration has been selected as the basis of its joint bid with Boeing. The JMR demonstrator would be the third X2 design iteration after Sikorsky's company-funded technology demonstrator, which exceeded 20 kt. in 2010, and the 235-kt. S-97 Raider light tactical helicopter, two industry-funded prototypes of which are being built for first flight in 2014. The decision to use Sikorsky's X2 configuration was made jointly, after both companies completed separate Army-funded configuration trades and analysis studies looking at advanced conventional and compound helicopters as well as tiltrotors.

The two manufacturers announced their long-term teaming agreement on JMR and FVL only in January, having begun high-level talks after the Farnborough air show last June, by which time configuration studies were well advanced. “We did our own AOAs [analyses of alternatives], then did an AOA together using that work as the baseline,” says Samir Mehta, president of Sikorsky Military Systems. “I can't stress enough how collaborative this has been.”

Boeing and Sikorsky jointly developed the Army's RAH-66 Comanche armed scout helicopter to replace the OH-58D. Although the program was canceled in 2004, “we built a very strong team with respect for each other,” says Leanne Caret, Boeing vice president and general manager for vertical lift. “We are starting with that history in mind.”

Speed was the determining factor in selecting the X2 configuration, with its rigid coaxial rotors and pusher propeller. But hover efficiency, combat radius and hot-and-high performance were factors in the configuration's favor, Mehta says. A cruise speed of 230 kt. is a 100-kt. improvement over the UH-60M, he says, while “hover efficiency is significantly higher; there is a 60% improvement in combat radius and 50% better hot/high performance.”

Minimizing drag and weight are key areas of effort for the JMR demonstrator. “We are also focusing on the dimensions of the aircraft, as this is a joint program,” he says. The FVL Medium could replace the U.S. Navy's MH-60 shipborne helicopter, and a coaxial-rotor configuration is more compact.

The air vehicles will be built under Phase 1 of the JMR technology demonstration, while Phase 2—running two years later—will demonstrate mission systems. Sikorsky is the lead for the Phase 1 bid and Boeing is the prime for Phase 2, Mehta says. But the companies are working jointly on all aspects of design. “Sikorsky is leading the dynamic system, but there are Boeing engineers on the team. Boeing is lead on the airframe, but there are Sikorsky folks on the team,” he says.

Boeing's decision to team with Sikorsky in perpetuity for JMR and FVL leaves Bell looking for new partners with which to offer a third-generation tiltrotor for JMR and FVL. Speaking on the eve of last month's Heli-Expo show in Las Vegas, CEO John Garrison said that, while its relationship with Boeing on the V-22 Osprey remains strong, Bell is now looking for new partners to help develop tiltrotors and provide both technology and investment.

“We are trying to determine right now who the best team is going forward and obviously they will bring not just engineering and technical capability, they will have to bring financial capability as well,” he said. “Bell was once the main supplier of helicopters to the U.S. Army, and we would like to regain that mission, but we face formidable competitors,” Garrison said.

Boeing and Sikorsky would seem to be the team to beat, as between them they have produced 80% of the Army's helicopter fleet, including the UH-60s and AH-64s intended to be replaced by the FVL Medium. But Mehta, for one, expects strong competition from EADS. While the company is not divulging its chosen configuration, the Army's speed requirement could be met by an aircraft similar to Eurocopter's X3 high-speed compound helicopter demonstrator, which has reached 232 kt. in flight tests in Europe.

Although the Army has specified a 230-kt. cruise for the JMR demonstrators, that does not mean the FVL Medium has to be a high-speed helicopter. Instead, having invested previously in conventional-helicopter technology development, AATD wants to balance its R&D portfolio and level the playing field for an Army decision, late this decade or early next, on whether the FVL Medium will be an advanced conventional or compound helicopter or a tiltrotor. So far, Army leadership is saying increased speed is important.

The key JMR bidders also are awaiting the decision on the AAS, and not just because of its potential impact on the FVL. Aviation-branch officials briefed Army and Pentagon leadership on the AAS early this year, recommending a new acquisition program rather than extending the service life of the Kiowa Warrior. But Army leaders requested more information on AAS capabilities before making a decision, and now the program's future is caught up in the fiscal uncertainty caused by sequestration and lower budgets going forward.

“Army and [Office of the Secretary of Defense] leadership have been briefed on the AAS study, but are awaiting this additional information prior to making the decision,” says Lt. Col. Chris Mills, armed scout helicopter product manager. “Needless to say, fiscal uncertainty has affected AAS affordability decisions,” he says, adding that “the program faces the same future budget uncertainties of other Department of Defense acquisition programs.”

Army aviation's recommendation to buy a new scout off the shelf is the result of a lengthy AOA, evaluation of industry responses to a request for information and voluntary flight demonstrations of available helicopters. Conducted between September and December of last year, the flight demos allowed the Army to evaluate the off-the-shelf AAS contenders: Bell's OH-58D Block 2, Boeing's AH-6i, EADS North America's AAS-72/72X and MD Helicopters' MD 540F. AgustaWestland demonstrated its AW139M as a surrogate for the smaller AW169 that it would offer for AAS.

The demos “were an effort to see what armed scout capabilities were currently available and to see where industry stood with respect to the technological maturity of their AAS candidates,” Mills says. In addition to the flight demos, the Army visited companies that responded to the AAS request for information with helicopters still on the drawing board. These included AVX with a coaxial-rotor, dual ducted-fan upgrade of the OH-58D and Sikorsky with the S-97 Raider.

Afterward, Sikorsky proclaimed that the Raider would have a $15 million flyaway cost for the AAS, compared with an estimated $12 million for an equivalent off-the-shelf conventional helicopter. The statement was made to counter assertions that the all-new Raider is unaffordable. “There are too many misperceptions out there. It's time to put in print that this is a $15 million aircraft,” says Steve Engebretson, Sikorsky's AAS program director.

Although it would cost 25% more than an off-the-shelf helicopter, the coaxial-rotor, pusher-propeller Raider offers higher speed and performance, he says. The aircraft is being designed for a 235-kt. maximum speed and to hover out of ground effect at 10,000 ft. on a 95F day. “On a dollars-per-pound basis, an equivalent conventional helicopter will cost $12 million,” Engebretson says. “So for 25% more, you get 100% more capability out of the platform, and a longer life,” as the Raider is an all-new design.

The two prototypes are being built with $200 million of industry funding: $150 million from Sikorsky and the rest from its suppliers. The first aircraft is to fly in 2014, the earliest an AAS competition could be staged. “This is not a complex aircraft,” Engebretson says. “It is just the integration of conventional technologies into a high-technology package.” Sikorsky's cost comparison assumes production of 428 aircraft to replace the Army's OH-58D/F armed scouts and includes a notional $5 million for the mission-equipment package of sensors and weapons on both the Raider and off-the-shelf contenders. The company is not defining the package, but Engebretson says the Raider's open systems architecture will accept any sensors and weapons the Army chooses.

Sikorsky's argument in favor of Raider also assumes the Army would be prepared to wait until 2017, after the worst of the budget-cutting is past, to launch a new-start AAS program to replace the Kiowa Warrior. It also assumes the Army would want a military-specification aircraft, meeting the full ballistic-tolerance and crash-survivability requirements. As commercial off-the-shelf helicopters—and the Raider prototypes—are not mil-spec, this would entail a development program. But if the Army decides to launch an AAS competition in 2014 to buy non-developmental, non-mil-spec helicopters more quickly—for which several contenders are pushing—Engebretson says Sikorsky “will put a gun and a FLIR” on the Raider prototype design and offer that.

If the Army proceeds with a procurement, information from the demos and studies “will be used to help establish achievable AAS requirements. A decision is expected in the spring timeframe,” says Mills. “The Army has asked industry to remain patient while they make an informed decision regarding the AAS, especially considering the uncertain fiscal environment.”