The Army's Future Utility Helicopter for 2030 Goes 300mph

Kris Osborn

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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) The Army is already flying a new generation of helicopters about twice as fast as a 150mph Black Hawk and twice as far, breaking new tactical and strategic ground in preparation for warfare in the 2030s with unprecedented agility, maneuverability, weapons and targeting technology.

The now accelerated Future Long Range Assault Aircraft program seeks to expand beyond previous technological boundaries and surge into a new era of aerial warfare capability to include unprecedented speed, fuel efficient engines, smoke and fog penetrating sensors, long-range high-fidelity infrared targeting targeting systems, autonomous flight capability, AI-enabled computing and a new generation of weapons.

Upon initial examination, several immediate and widely discussed attributes are “range and speed.” The new FLRAA aircraft, according to both Sikorsky-Boeing and Bell developers, can go twice as fast and twice as far as an existing Black Hawk. This means many things, such as speeds as fast as 300knots and a combat radius close to 500km or more, performance parameters expected to change helicopter air war for decades into the the future.

In a discussion about FLRAA last year, Brig. Gen. Walter Rugen, director of the FVL Cross-Functional Team told Warrior that some of the technical breakthroughs with the new helicopter bring substantial new attack capabilities,

“We want the ability to operate the aircraft, conduct near-peer air assaults and show up in places where the enemy does not expect us,” Rugen said in his interview with Warrior.

One key element among the many innovations likely to inspire much focus is just how can these kinds of massive speed increases be achieved? With fuel efficiency and engine power sufficient to double ranges. This tactical reality completely changes the warfare equation when it comes to an ability to close with an enemy by delivering infantry soldiers, supplies, ammunition or life-saving medical support.

Both Bell and Sikorsky-Boeing designs are considered compound configurations, engineered with an intent to engineer a new platform able to both hover and maneuver like a helicopter, yet also achieve airplane-like range and speed. To accomplish this, Bell’s V-280 Valor relies upon what developers call a new generation of Osprey-like Tiltrotor technology which rotates dual rotors from a horizontal to vertical position depending upon “mode,” and Lockheed-Sikorky’s DEFIANT X brings coaxial rotor system technology to new level.

“If you think of what a Black Hawk does when inbound to an LZ, then picture a 2030 contested operational environment. We will be flying twice as far and twice as fast but they still have to be very maneuverable in and around the objective area,” Jay Macklin, Sikorsky business development director, Future Vertical Lift, told Warrior in an interview.

What will this kind of increased combat functionality mean for modern warfare maneuver tactics and Combined Arms Maneuver? Perhaps the angle of descent for a high-speed air assault raid can be much steeper? Perhaps hover positions can quickly shift positions as needed with short bursts of acceleration? Added maneuverability can help the aircraft elude incoming enemy fire and speed up low-altitude fast operations intended to achieve a specific combat effect while minimizing risk.

More lethal, semi-autonomous, slightly stealthy and twice the speed and range of a Black Hawk helicopter are just a few of the terms used to describe the Army’s emerging Future Long Range Assault Aircraft, a now-underway developmental effort slated to deploy by 2030.

Calling it a future Black Hawk would both be correct and reductive, as the new aircraft will assume all of the utility helicopter missions such as infantry transport, MEDEVAC, cargo delivery and some reconnaissance, the new FLRAA will likely take on an even broader mission scope given that it is being architected for warfare in the 2030s and beyond. Case in point, an Army report described the new aircraft as something which will “augment” and not necessarily “replace” the Black Hawk.

“This medium lift, tactical assault and medical evacuation capability will augment the Army’s H-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter fleet to provide Combat Aviation Brigades with long-range, high-speed options that are survivable in contested environments,” a report from PEO Aviation wrote a few months ago.

Two aircrafts are now flying, one from Bell Helicopter building the V-280 Valor and another a Sikorsky-Boeing team called the SB>1 DEFIANT. For the Army’s FLRAA competition, Sikorsky and Boeing are offering the DEFIANT X, based on the SB>1 prototype. The V-280 is engineered to be a next-generation tiltrotor compound configuration and the other is built with counter-rotating coaxial rotor blades and a back-end thrust propeller to achieve massive new amounts of speed and in-flight stability.

Due to welcome, yet unanticipated progress, the FLRAA program has been accelerated by as many as four years, Brig. Gen. Walter Rugen, director of the FVL Cross-Functional Team, explained to Warrior in an interview last year.

A key element of the acceleration is what Rugen called an ability to “upgrade at the speed of technology.” This means that software and hardware configurations are being engineered to accommodate new weapons, sensors, computer systems and engine technologies.

Lockheed-Sikorsky Video on FLRAA

The FLRAA, has been surging forward following a multi-year science and technology development program called the Joint Multi Role Technology Demonstrator program.This means that, when viewed with a total mind to its requirements and new technological capabilities, the FLRAA may be destined to be “much more” than a Black Hawk; developers told me years ago during the early S&T phase in 2011 that the intent for the new aircraft was no so much to build something based on the best-available technologies, but rather architect something technically upgradeable so as to operate successfully in the 2030s and beyond. This amounts to a technological configuration and sophistication sufficient to embrace a new sphere of missions beyond those intended for even the cutting-edge, upgraded Black Hawk M helicopter.

“We will have to be synchronized and integrated across a network and continue to evolve as things change in the 2030s,” Heather McBryan, Boeing sales and marketing director, Future Vertical Lift, told Warrior in an interview.

A Black Hawk is reported to be able to hit speeds up to 150 miles per hour, therefore something twice as fast would be quite fast. While the exact speed of the DEFIANT X is not available, likely for security reasons, Bell reports its V-280 can hit speeds of 280 knots. The DEFIANT’s predecessor, called SB > 1 DEFIANT is reported by Sikorsky developers to have reached speeds greater than 230 knots, adding that innovators continue to push the envelope beyond that with the DEFIANT X. The DEFIANT X builds upon Sikorsky’s history of developing coaxial rotor blades to break new ground with its X2 Technology Demonstrator in 2010 by hitting 250 knots. Bell developers tell The National Interest that their V-280 has hit 305 knots. X2 Technology Demonstrator set new records by flying more than 250 knots in 2010. Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider helicopter in 2019 hit 207 knots. Sikorsky tells me they continue to expand the envelope as they prepare the RAIDER X prototype - a scaled version of the S-97 - for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) competition.

It makes sense that new uility helicopters delivering infantry under heavy enemy fire in 2030 will need new levels of speed, maneuverability and agility to succeed in an entirely new sphere of high-speed combat intensity.

Such is the premise of the FLRAA, the now-in-development Black Hawk like aircraft for the 2030s intended to heavily impact, if not change, the maneuverability paradigm for utility helicopters moving into the future. Air Assault raids, for example, will likely be of an entirely different character in 10 years, something which continues to inform the developmental trajectory of two competing aircraft, Bell’s V-280 Valor and Sikorsky-Boeing’s DEFIANT X.

Many of the now airborne innovations necessary to achieve previously unimagined speeds and maneuverability are the result of years of innovation and technological experimentation. For example, Sikorsky-Boeing engineers, builders and weapons developers of the DEFIANT X have found a way to massively decrease or even remove what’s called “Retreating Blade Stall,” by building rigid, counter-rotating rotor blades.

The rigid rotor blades are engineered to mitigate pockets of instability in the air called “blade stall” which could otherwise destabilize flight trajectory, adding new dimensions of agility such that the aircraft can more quickly arrive at a combat objective, stop, unload infantry and then get out.

“We have done a significant amount of ground system testing and wind tunnel testing. We understand that maneuverability and agility are crucial to mission success as well as survivability on the battlefield,” Jay Macklin, Sikorsky business development director, Future Vertical Lift, told Warrior in an interview.

Macklin further elaborated upon some of the technical innovations by explaining how a coaxial rotor system spins its upper and lower blades in opposite directions such that there is not a “retreating side” creating a flight imbalance.

The retreating blade side is referred to in a Lockheed-Sikorsky-Boeing paper as a “reverse velocity region” which “cannot produce lift,” especially at higher speeds. Offsetting this potential instability, therefore, can help enable and sustain much higher speeds without compromising or losing flight stability.

In a traditional helicopter, as you move through the air the lift across the rotor disc becomes uneven based on the relative wind created by your forward speed. As you accelerate the "advancing blade" (on the right side of the helicopter) feels more relative wind than the "retreating blade.” To account for this imbalance the retreating blades must increase their pitch angle so that the lift is equal on the right and left sides of the helicopter. At some point this pitch angle becomes so great that the blade stalls (stops producing lift) - hence the name, "retreating blade stall,;” Macklin said.

Part of these new approaches to speed and maneuverability include a focus on yet another element of the Army’s sought-after requirements for the aircraft, an ability to operate in much more difficult “high-hot” conditions, meaning 95-degrees Fahrenheit and 6,000 feet where thinner air can challenge helicopter operations. Yet another element of technological focus, something fundamental to speed, maneuverability and overall operational effectiveness, is the need to achieve and sustain lift. Sikorsky-Boeing data on the DEFIANT X says that their aircraft can handle additional weight without having to grow the rotor diameter or the engine size. So, any additional equipment, survivability features, payload (including external lift) can be handled without a significant and costly redesign of key dynamic components. The DEFIANT X can sling load a 155mm Howitzer mobile artillery cannon.

“Our compound coaxial rigid rotor systems have a tremendous amount of lift capability. We can pick up quite a bit of weight,” Macklin said.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Comments (2)
No. 1-2
TimetoFly
TimetoFly

Kris, why don't you ask the hard questions? The compound coax technology has consistently failed to produce any validated evidence that it can do much of what is claimed in this article. Jay consistently messages that the aircraft is maneuverable but that has never been demonstrated. Ask about vibrations and high speed maneuvering. Ground testing and models are interesting but the demonstrated lack of ability to validate that through flight test is worth noting yet no one calls this out. Why?

TimetoFly
TimetoFly

Additionally, to Jay's point point that there isn't a retreating side. There are actually two retreating sides. While advancing blade concept ensures there is always compensation for the retreating sides, there are still vibration issues associated with the reduced lift on the retreating sides. That, combined with the desire to not mesh rotor systems (again) drives the need for exceptionally stiff blades which of course means higher costs. This technology has reached some inch-stones over the last few decades but has never matured to a point of being able to demonstrate any notable flight capability. The top speeds always involve descents and those speeds are underwhelming compared to it's nearest competitor. The lack of demonstrated speed capability also calls into question how much growth there is in the technology for greater performance in any regime other than a hover. Two exotic main rotor systems certainly results in exceptional hover capability. If only the customer (in this case the Army) were asking for something that mostly only hovered better than the current fleet. Not what they're asking for though. If we're to believe the threat has changed, which drives doctrinal change, which demands new capabilities in speed and range, Why does this program keep bringing it back to helicopter language and low speed conversations?


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