House language could create friction over chopper programs

Provisions in the 2006 House defense authorization bill, which would force the Army and the Marine Corps to work together on a common heavy-lift helicopter, could cause friction within the two services. At issue are two helicopter concepts, designed on separate tracks: the so-called Marine Corps CH-53 cargo heavy lift replacement and the Joint Heavy Lift Helicopter, an endeavor led by the Army.

Provisions in the 2006 House defense authorization bill, which would force the Army and the Marine Corps to work together on a common heavy-lift helicopter, could cause friction within the two services.

At issue are two helicopter concepts, designed on separate tracks: the so-called Marine Corps CH-53 cargo heavy lift replacement and the Joint Heavy Lift Helicopter, an endeavor led by the Army.

In a bid to raise the military services’ financial accountability, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) requested that several programs that seem to have similar goals be melded.

“We have services each wanting their own individual platforms while accomplishing the same objective. We put language in this [bill] that says they cannot do that,” Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) said on the floor last week as the House was considering the defense authorization bill. “We cannot afford to have the exact same helicopter for the Army that meets the exact same need of the Marine Corps.”

Weldon, the chairman of committee’s Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee and a staunch supporter of helicopter development, is trying to bring the Marine Corps and the Army “on the same sheet of paper,” even though he may be dealing with two different philosophies, said Rhett Flater, the executive director of the American Helicopter Society.

Weldon seems to be aware of the stir his decision may bring to the services. At a recent industry conference, Weldon recalled that when he suggested the Army and the Marine Corps cooperate on the Joint Heavy Lift Helicopter, “you would have thought I started World War III,” said several industry sources who attended the conference.

The Marine Corps has been committed to remanufacturing its workhorse cargo helicopter, the CH-53, which has performed well both in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Operation Enduring Freedom, for example, the CH-53 E Super Stallion ferried Marines and special operators to Afghanistan from ships 900 miles offshore.

The first Sikorsky-built CH-53 was delivered to the Marine Corps in the mid-1960s. The current version of the CH-53 E already flew in 1975. A strained logistics base and long-range requirements dictated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have prompted the requirements for the CH-53X, the replacement program.

While the CH-53 E is designed to carry 16 tons in tropical environments, the CH-53X should be able to carry 15 tons, but at 3,000 feet and at a temperature of 91.5 degrees. Those features would give the replacement almost a double lift capability. The Marine Corps envisioned having the first such helicopter in the fleet by 2012.

Meanwhile, the Army has been digging for concepts on a heavy-lift helicopter — a mammoth never built before that should be able to carry the service’s new future combat systems as well as brigade-sized units. The rotorcraft should be able to lift at least 20 tons, and some sources say it is envisioned to lift up to 30 tons. Currently, the CH-53 is the largest cargo aircraft in the U.S. fleet.

A strong proponent of the concept, Michael Wynne, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, commissioned the creation of the Joint Vertical Aircraft Task Force almost two years ago.

A heavy-lift cargo aircraft not only would carry the Army’s load but could serve as a so-called “connector” under the Navy’s advanced concept that would link the service’s future naval platforms to land. “Sea-basing” is a notion entertained by the Navy and Marine Corps that ground forces can be launched and sustained solely from the sea, without needing a land base. The idea received more traction when Turkey denied U.S. troops access to enter Iraq from the north.

So far, the Army has been named to lead the evaluation of the concepts for such a gigantic chopper. The service hasn’t yet settled on what kind of aircraft it envisions. It could be a quad tiltrotor, a fixed-wing aircraft or a hybrid of the two, an industry source said.

The Army’s Advanced Aviation Technology Directorate, based at Fort Eustis, Va., put out a broad area announcement in May requesting technology papers from the helicopter industry. The directorate is planning to make multiple awards by Sept. 15 totaling $3.45 million. The Army is planning to select five vendors to refine concepts over two years, said Army Col. Tim Crosby, the program manager for cargo helicopters at Redstone Arsenal, Ala.

All the major U.S. helicopter companies — Sikorsky, Bell, Boeing — have concepts in the works. Company representatives did not return calls by press time.

Meanwhile, the Army also wants an upgraded and more powerful version of its current Chinook cargo helicopter, the CH-47 F. “The Marine Corps wants to upgrade the CH-53; the Army wants the CH-47 F, but also has a requirement for the heavy-lift helicopter,” Flater said. “The services are acting in their self-interest.”

Nevertheless, Flater said the Armed Services Committee is confusing the Marine Corps’s and the heavy-lift helicopter’s requirements. He added that the confusion also stems from the fact the Marine Corps insists on calling its program the heavy-lift replacement when in fact it is looking for a medium-heavy-lift capability.

“The mission for this helicopter is to fly certain kinds of payloads into combat and return to the ship,” said Flater, a former Marine Corps pilot. “We are talking two hugely different systems.”  The Joint Vertical Aircraft Task Force would be looking at an aircraft that would have twice the capability of the CH-53 replacement.

Despite the waters’ starting to boil, the Defense Department is looking at an ever-increasing bill for its war operations and a multitude of technology requirements tugging from several directions. The financial requirement for a new heavy-lift helicopter is “huge,” an industry source said. “Unless there is an extraordinary will on behalf of the Defense Department, and unless it is a joint requirement, it is not going to happen.”

The Army hasn’t had any new helicopter programs since the Comanche program, which started in 1983 and was canceled almost two years ago because of spiraling costs.

“Weldon has a good desire. They want to see the Marine Corps and the Army cooperate on the same program,” Flater said. “Weldon and HASC are trying to say start talking with each other about this, but the Marine Corps would say that they need the CH-53 right now.”

The question is where the two services will find compromise, a congressional staff member said. The Pentagon is going to end up paying “for capacity that one service is not going to use,” the source said. “The Marine Corps would not be satisfied to have something built to Army requirements. In the worst case, you are going to have to design it to the highest requirements.”

There will be a range of technological developments, the scope of which will depend on the choices made as the concept refinement progresses, a Pentagon spokesperson said. “We expect to see new technological developments in engine technology, drive systems, aircraft structures, among other areas,” the spokesperson said.

Almost two years ago, Weldon championed the creation in his district of the new Center for Rotorcraft Innovation, which is aimed at bringing together industry, universities and the military to work on the development of advanced technologies.

“Our ultimate mission is to improve the competitiveness of the U.S. helicopter industry,” said Rande Vause, the executive director for center. “The center will become the focal point for coordination between government and industry, and you will hear a lot about in the next few years.”

In the House 2006 defense authorization bill, the center received $10 million. The Senate Armed Services Committee has no such provision.

The Senate is due to meet for its consideration of the defense authorization bill in the coming weeks. After that, the House and Senate will meet in conference to discuss the bill.