Thinking Tech

The American military's helicopter problem

The American military's helicopter problem

Posting in Design

The armed forces depend heavily on helicopters, and thousands are in service all around the world. But they're getting old, and modern replacements have yet to take shape.

Helicopters are a ubiquitous feature of modern warfare. They enable a tremendous range of operations, and serve as vital tools for ensuring soldiers' safety and efficacy. But, for hardware so vital to the success of the armed forces, helicopters are getting a little long in the tooth. According to a report by the Congressional Budget Office, published last year, this will soon become a problem:

Toward the end of the Cold War, the Army’s helicopter, or rotary-wing, fleet consisted of nearly 9,000 aircraft. Over the past 20 years, however, the fleet has contracted to its current strength of about 3,500 aircraft. Despite the elimination of many older helicopters and the modernization or replacement of others, most of the helicopters in today’s fleet already exceed or soon will reach ages greater than the Army considers practical.

This issue is compounded by the fact that, after the current fleet ages out, it's not clear what will replace them. Currently available helicopters are equipped with modern weapons and communications technology, but their underlying designs are stuck in decades past. Here's a quick rundown of the most popular helicopters used by the US Army, paired with the dates on which they were introduced:

  • Boeing AH-64D Apache: 1986
  • Sikorski UH-60M Black Hawk: 1974
  • Bell AH‑1Z Viper: 2000 (Based on the AH1, which debuted in 1969)
  • Bell UH-1Y Venom: 2001 (Based on the UH1N Huey, which debuted in 1969)
  • Even the newest helicopters share a lot of DNA with forebears that are, in technological terms, ancient. You can only upgrade an old design so many times. So, what's the plan? Well, the Army will keep modernizing its current fleet in the near term. But within a couple of decades, the government is hoping to have a range of totally new helicopters, which may bear little resemblance to what's flying now. And according to Aviation Week, this initiative, called the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) rotorcraft program, is finally getting under way.

    Next month, the government will award its first contracts for the program. Don't expect fleshed-out concept helicopters, though--right now, the goal is to figure out exactly what the military needs from its helicopters, and to lay out a framework for what's feasible, technologically and financially, within the proposed timeframe. Here's what the JMR is intended to achieve, eventually:

    Starting in 2023, the Army’s aviation modernization plan calls for the JMR to be developed jointly with the Marine Corps. The JMR will replace the fleet of Longbow AB3 attack helicopters as they are retired beginning around 2030. Subsequently, a utility version of the JMR will replace the Blackhawk as it begins to be retired around 2038, CBO estimates. Under the current concept, the various versions of the JMR will have all of the capabilities of the Blackhawk, Apache, and ARH, with some new capabilities based on improvements in technology that may be achieved in the coming decade.

    The proposal also calls for the development of a Joint Heavy Lift rotorcraft (JHL), a concept image of which is posted above.

    This proposed timeline isn't arbitrary--meeting it may prove to be necessary. Layne Merritt, director for engineering and technology for the Army’s Program Executive Office Aviation, told Aviation Week, "all our current production lines go cold around 2018, plus or minus two years."

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    John Herrman

    Contributing Editor

    Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure