Army aviation’s “top modernization priority program” – at least that’s what they call it – took another baby step forward this week. The service awarded preliminary design review contracts to the two competitors vying to build a better engine to power the service’s vast fleet of Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk and Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters.
“This is another important milestone in the long journey necessary to create a leap-ahead in engine technology,” Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the American Helicopter Society International, says. “Not only will ITEP provide more power to the Black Hawk and Apache, it will also allow them to fly farther and higher, last longer and use less fuel, and require less maintenance than today’s engine.”
The Advanced Turbine Engine Co. (ATEC), a 50-50 joint venture formed by Pratt & Whitney and Honeywell was awarded a contract worth $154 million. General Electric Co.’s GE Aviation of Lynn, Mass., which produced the existing T700 engines used by the Black Hawk and Apache, was awarded $102 million.
Two years from now – a decade into the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) project – the Army is to choose either GE or ATEC to provide an engine that can replace the GE T700 without major modifications to Black Hawk and Apache airframes. The new engine is to supply 3,000 shaft horsepower instead of the T700’s maximum 2,000 shp.
But while the Army says the ITEP is its top aviation priority, the schedule makes one wonder. After completing their preliminary design reviews, the competitors are to be awarded engineering and manufacturing contracts in early 2017, followed by selection of the winning engine in 2018. The first engine test is expected only in 2021 and full rate production five years after that, or 2026.
By then, under the Pentagon’s joint Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative, the Army also hopes to be selecting a vastly faster, more agile and otherwise more capable Joint Multirole (JMR) aircraft to replace the Black Hawk and Apache – a schedule industry leaders hope the government will accelerate. In September 2017, Bell Helicopter and a team formed by Lockheed Martin company Sikorsky Aircraft and Boeing Co. are scheduled to fly new JMR Technology Demonstrator aircraft that can cruise twice as fast as Black Hawks and Apaches — Bell’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor and Sikorsky-Boeing’s SB>1 Defiant, a helicopter with coaxial rotors and a pusher propeller.
The timing has some experts scratching their heads. Black Hawks and Apaches are to be phased out entirely only by 2050, but why spend millions developing a new engine for helicopters you plan to start replacing just about the time that new engine is ready? Why not use that money to finance the larger FVL, which is also supposed to develop new light, heavy and ultra-heavy vertical lift aircraft?
The answer, like almost all Army acquisition decisions, will emerge over time. Slowly, if not surely.