Finally responding to calls from operators and industry to begin work on replacing its hard-pressed helicopter fleets, the U.S. Army is moving ahead with a program to develop the next generation of rotorcraft. But the service faces a challenge securing sufficient government and industry funding to sustain competition until a development program can begin around the end of the decade.

The Army has kicked off the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) program not knowing exactly what it wants or which of its helicopter fleets it will replace first. Instead it has a list of desired attributes and a rough timescale—2027-28—for fielding its first all-new rotorcraft in 50 years. The task of turning those attributes into requirements for a next-generation aircraft falls to a pair of technology demonstrators the service plans to build and fly in 2017.

In a sign the Army is getting serious, its budget for rotorcraft science and technology (S&T)—which has long run at a mere $100 million a year—is being augmented for the JMR demonstrators. But additional funding, as well as industry cost-sharing, will be needed if the service is to fly two robust demonstrators with mission systems and so keep its competitive options open.

“It's a major breakthrough that we are not flat-lined at $100 million and they have been successful in getting Army leadership to increase S&T funding for the JMR demonstration,” says Michael Hirschberg, executive director of American Helicopter Society (AHS) International, a technical body. “It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to do everything they want the technology demonstrators to do.”

JMR is seen as a family of vertical-lift vehicles, from light to ultra-heavy, sharing common technologies. As a starting point, the Army has selected the middle of the range and the medium utility JMR. Not only would this replace the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks that make up its single largest helicopter fleet, but studies over the next two years will show to what extent technologies required in a medium utility JMR could scale down to the light scout and up to the heavy transport classes.

Distilled from several recent Army and Pentagon-level analyses that identified gaps in U.S. rotorcraft capabilities, the list of desired attributes for the JMR family of vehicles includes speed exceeding 200 kt., up from less than 150 kt. for today's helicopters, a combat radius of 230 nm and 6,000-ft./95F hot-and-high performance. In addition to better affordability, durability and survivability, other attributes include a common core avionics architecture and an optionally manned capability.

“The capabilities demanded cannot be achieved through upgrading the current fleet,” says Ned Chase, platform technologies division chief at the Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD). “We want to build two technology demonstrators to pursue capabilities lacking in the current fleet while maintaining competition and providing different alternatives.”

The list of attributes for the medium utility JMR has been provided to three industry teams that received configuration trades and analysis contracts at the end of June. Awarded to Bell Boeing, Boeing and Sikorsky, the 18-month contracts are each worth $4 million, with industry contributing a similar amount. “We are negotiating with one more, and should award a contract in the next couple of weeks,” says Chase.

The configuration studies “will distill out the things that bring the most value, and get us from a list of attributes to the design requirements for a next-generation rotorcraft,” he says. “They will provide the performance specification for the demonstrator aircraft.”

The JMR demonstrators will not be prototypes, as the YUH-60 and -61 were for the Black Hawk or YAH-63 and -64 for the Apache. For one thing, they are expected to be smaller than the objective vehicles to reduce cost. And secondly, Chase says, the Army has committed to industry to have another competition for development and production.

The three teams already under contract are taking different approaches. One is “doing a deep dive on a single configuration,” says Chase. Another is studying three different concepts, while the third is looking at all possible options, he says. Bell Helicopter CEO John Garrison has said previously that the Bell Boeing team responsible for the V-22 Osprey proposed a tiltrotor configuration for the JMR studies. The fourth contract is taking longer to negotiate because the unidentified entity is not as experienced in contracting with the Defense Department, “but they have a good proposal,” says Chase.

The same list of attributes for a medium utility JMR has been supplied to an independent government design team that is looking at advanced helicopter, compound helicopter and tiltrotor concepts, he says. The government designers are providing data on the three configurations to an operations analysis team at Fort Rucker, Ala., which will run scenarios to establish the relative values of the desired attributes. “They will consider the performance of a fleet of aircraft to establish what operational value each attribute brings to the table,” Chase says.

“We need to understand which attributes are most important on the battlefield, and most cost-effective to implement,” he says. “We need to understand how to get the right mix of capabilities on the aircraft. The decisions we make will impact rotary-wing aviation operations for the next 50 years.”

The aim is to develop a draft requirement for the medium utility JMR—“it's about this big, goes this far, does these things and we have an idea we can afford it,” Chase says—and use that to derive the demonstrator specification.

At the same time, an acquisition team involving the Army, Navy, Special Operations Command and other potential customers is developing an initial capabilities document (ICD) establishing the requirements for the JMR. This is expected to be completed by mid-fiscal 2012, says Chase. The ICD is a necessary precursor to an analysis of alternatives and Milestone A approval for a new acquisition program, and it is not clear yet whether the ICD will be for the overall JMR family of vehicles or just for the medium utility class.

“We have established a joint-service team through the Office of the Secretary of Defense's Future Vertical Lift [FVL] working group,” he says. This brings together rotorcraft operators within the Pentagon and was directed by Congress to determine capability gaps, develop an S&T road map and strategic plan for vertical lift, and identify funds for technology development.

With the ICD in place, AATD plans to award multiple contracts in fiscal 2013 to begin design of the JMR demonstrators. Following preliminary design reviews, the Army in fiscal 2015 intends to downselect to two contractors to build the aircraft. “We are putting funding in place for two. They may be the same or entirely different configurations,” he says. Phase 1 of the demonstration will involve flight tests of the demonstrator air vehicles. Phase 2, following two years later, will involve the design and integration of two open-architecture mission systems into the demonstrator aircraft.

Work on defining the common core architecture has already begun. “We've started that first, to build a Defense Department/industry consensus on an open systems architecture,” says Chase, adding that the program office responsible for developing the Army's Victory open architecture for combat vehicles is involved. The goal is to develop a common standard for a scalable architecture to be used in mission-system development in Phase 2. As with the air-vehicle Phase 1, the plan is to award two demonstration contracts to avionics integrators “as a hedge against risk,” says Chase.

With U.S. military rotorcraft production facing a cliff around the end of this decade as procurement programs end, AHS has been campaigning for more investment in technology development to sustain industry capabilities and lay foundations for the next generation.

“The Defense Department needs to ensure there is enough funding for the JMR demonstrators to really be relevant,” says Hirschberg. “This is the Pentagon's one chance to realize a significant advancement in capabilities—they can't afford to be timid.”