MILITARY ROTORCRAFT DEVELOPMENT - NO MORE ‘STOVEPIPES'
Asian Military Review|June/July 2021
New rotorcraft are going to come with new abilities founded on open systems that provide easier upgrade paths and cheaper through life costs.
Andrew Drwiega

The main manufacturers of military rotorcraft in the United States and Europe are at various stages of substantially transforming the performance of their designs for what will be their future platforms. The driving force behind this is the adoption of digital technology and improved manufacturing techniques and materials.

But it is also the product of the last 20 years of counter-insurgency campaigns, where many helicopters were proven to be unsuitable for operations in ‘hot and high conditions, particularly those experienced in Afghanistan.

However, the rule is never to prepare for the conflict that has just gone. With the chance of peer-to-peer or near-peer conflict now resurfacing, there are more elements to consider above range, speed, endurance, and improved maintenance, although these remain key attributes that virtually all military rotorcraft need to have.

More than ever the rotorcraft must be part of the military network, whether gathering intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), acting as a communications node, or delivering kinetic effects to the standard airborne logistical transport asset.

To do this, they must be able to share voice and data in real-time. They must also be able to operate close to, or in, the opponent’s anti-access aerial denial (A2AD) zone - particularly those with a kinetic role.

FLRAA/FARA

US Army Aviation Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) and Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) are due to be fielded around 2030. The main US rotorcraft manufacturers of Bell, Boeing, and Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin are the primes with a variety of compound and tiltrotor designs.

The two contenders for FLRAA are Bell’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor and Sikorsky/Boeing’s Defiant X coaxial, both of which emerged out of the US Army’s Joint Multirole Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD) project. Both Bell and Sikorsky are again in competition over FARA. Bell is offering its 360 Invictus while Sikorsky is Raider X.

Teaming with industry is one of the crucial aspects of any development programme, with recognized organizations, bring their particular technology experience. Bell’s team Invictus include Astronics, Collins Aerospace (part of Raytheon), GE Aviation, ITT-Enidine, L3Harris, Parker Lord, Mecaer Aviation, MOOG, and TRU Simulation + Training. While some of the same companies are also part of Team Valor, other companies include Eaton, GKN Aerospace, IAI, Lockheed Martin (also of course a key player in Sikorsky's competitive platforms), Rolls Royce and Spirit Aerosystems.

In August 2020, Bell opened a new Manufacturing Technology Center (MTC) at its Fort Worth headquarters. The drive to find solutions and to develop technologies and processes in line with the DoD’s ongoing upgrade requirements for its FVL aircraft is the reason for this development. Although the down select of both the FLRAA and FARA is over a year away, the MTC will focus on the refinement of core technologies including rotor and drive systems, critical infrastructure, and final assembly. Incidentally, this will almost certainly also be extremely useful to the company in the development of its civilian rotorcraft range.

Glenn Isbell, vice president, Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing Innovation said that ‘future factories’ such as the MTC would allow industry partners and teams to work more in harmony with each other throughout the development and sustainment of any platform. With the backbone of future platforms centered around digital connectivity and integration, the system architecture can be built and tested by industry before ever getting close to the aircraft for which they are intended.

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