I was editing Graham Warwick's story on the U.S. Army's Joint Multirole (JMR) rotorcraft program the other day:

---Original Message -----

From: Sweetman, Bill

To: Warwick, Graham

Sent: Mon Mar 26 10:36:42 2012

Subject: RE: JMR

I keep wanting to add things like “[We've all seen THIS movie before. - Ed.]” and “[Oh noooooo! - Ed.]”.

JMR is the Army's plan to replace thousands of helicopters—mainly, the Sikorsky Black Hawk family and the Boeing AH-64 Apache—with a single basic platform. Deliveries won't start until the late 2020s, so the Army is leaning toward making JMR more than a helicopter. It could be a tiltrotor or a coaxial compound, but it will also be a source of funding and an aimpoint for the U.S. helicopter technology community.

The latter is not a bad idea in itself. The U.S. helicopter industry is defense-oriented, and its domestic customers are well stocked with new helicopters—but these are based on designs 40 or more years old. The U.S. military is not going to need many helicopters until after 2025, but something needs to be done to ensure the industry is still there.

But a single platform based on radically new technology—haven't we been here before?

In the 1980s, the Pentagon kicked off two rotorcraft programs, each aimed at replacing a flock of other helicopter types. That would boost production rates so that new technology—one new vehicle was a tiltrotor and the other was stealthy—could fit within budgets that had once bought plain vanilla helicopters.

The RAH-66 Comanche was scrapped outright. The Navy and Army abandoned the V-22, while the Marines hung tight at an exorbitant cost in acquisition and support. They kept the engineering community busy, so busy that while the U.S. was looking the other way, Europe's industry started to develop its muscles making better helicopters—not necessarily fast or stealthy but reliable, efficient and affordable for military, government and commercial customers.

Even in the 1970s, if you heard a helicopter and looked up in the U.K., the chances were that you'd see a U.S.-built or -licensed helicopter. Today, Europe has competed successfully even for Pentagon business. The U.S. remains strong in hard-core combat helos, but has lost ground in civil and paramilitary markets.

And one platform to replace Black Hawk and Comanche sounds a lot like the Joint Strike Fighter: it's not just “winner take all,” it's “winner take all, forever,” and once the winner is picked the alternatives wither away with each budget cycle. The incentives for “wishful engineering” are measured in the hundreds of billions. Even the JSF's biggest fans can't argue that the proposal that won the competition was executable.

The requirement is not only big but also diverse. In the 1970s, the Army's utility and attack helicopters did end up in the same size class, with the same engines, but it is hard to see how you can predict, today, that the same will hold true after 2025. The Apache was designed to carry firepower to deal with armor in Central Europe, and the Black Hawk emerged from Vietnam experience. In those days, Special Operations Forces (SOF) took and adapted what they could get.

If you think the next paragraph is going to tell you how big the next attack and utility helicopters will be, think again. We don't know and have no way to tell. The future may be one in which a core force of armed high-performance helos enables a bigger fleet of reliable, rugged craft with dual-use genes. If so, no matter how many multi-player battlespace-wide simulations you run, necking down to a single technology demonstrator is not the way to go.

Let a thousand flowers bloom. Sikorsky is itching to build the S-97 Raider; co-fund the next stage of the demonstrator program and see whether the SOF community will use some of their generous budgets to conduct an operational test program, preferably with usable assets at the other end of it. Competitors will complain; offer them the same terms for anything they want to bring to the table. The Raider and the A160 show that there is creativity out there—the question is how to make that work for the user.

—Bill Sweetman