Military helicopters in India need a technological upgrade to meet future challenges
Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)
Military helicopters today are an integral part of land, sea and air operations of modern armies and are being increasingly employed in sub conventional operations (counter insurgency and counter terrorist operations) across the world. This trend is likely to continue in the future, with helicopters acquiring special features as was the case of Black Hawks used in ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ by the US special-forces in Pakistan.
The market for military helicopters is on the verge of a technological generational leap with next generation compound helicopters and tilt-rotor crafts heralding the advent of a new era that is likely to witness a significant expansion of the operational spectrum, capabilities and performance threshold of these machines. This is likely to eventually redefine their role besides enhancing overall effectiveness in conducting a wide range of military missions and operations.
Future Development & Capabilities
Military aviation today is looking at the next generation of military helicopters and the strategy to modernise vertical lift capability long term, with improved avionics, electronics, range, speed, propulsion, survivability and high-altitude performance. The philosophy is to improve on the present limitations by examining emerging technologies within the realm of the possible, with speeds in excess of 170 knots, combat range 0f 800 km, hover with full combat load under high/hot conditions and with a degree of autonomous flight capability.
There is a need to harness technological innovation by looking beyond current force technology and identifying possible next generation solutions in areas such as propulsion, airframe materials, rotor systems, engine technology, survivability equipment, mission systems and next generation maintenance techniques among others.
The advances in helicopter designs have not been as impressive as for the fixed wing especially fighter aircraft. While jet fighters are in their fifth generation, the helicopters are still strutting around with the same old designs and airframes, with mostly upgrades to its credit – it has been without a new helicopter design since the induction in the Eighties of the Apache attack helicopter built by Boeing. The Apache AH-64E (Block-III), the latest version also called ‘The Guardian’ is a vivid example, where even though 26 new technologies have been incorporated, relating mainly to more powerful engines, composite rotor blades, upgraded transmission system and capability to control UAVs, the main design and configuration remains the same.
However, today the global helicopter industry is undergoing a significant transformation as are customer demands and the capabilities offered by cutting edge technologies. Significant advances in technology such as computation structural dynamics modelling, expanded use of additive manufacturing, fly by wire controls, advanced condition-based maintenance (CBM), health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) and advanced turbine engine programmes, promise a big leap in rotorcraft capabilities.
Governments worldwide are initiating new defence procurements, while simultaneously developing and expanding indigenous production and development capabilities for both military and civil applications. India has also taken the lead in this area by its recent exposition of its ‘Make in India Policy’ in the defence sector and inviting the private sector to be part and parcel of the growing defence aerospace industry - the progress though has been woefully slow.
The US remains the world’s largest purchaser and developer of military helicopters, with major aviation giants like Sikorsky, Boeing and Bell taking the lead in the design, development and manufacture of state of art military and civil helicopters. The US military has embarked on the most transformative science and technology initiative in decades – the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstration effort, where the industry plans to prove the revolutionary capabilities of high speed approaches for a family of future military products. In Russia the Moscow based ‘Russian Helicopters’ has been a lead player in the Global Helicopter Industry, with its major thrust being towards design and development of military helicopters. Europe has in the last two decades also emerged as a major contender in the helicopter market, both in the civil and military domain - Airbus Helicopter formerly ‘Eurocopter’ and Anglo-Italian AgustaWestland are the two major companies whose products have flooded the civil as well as military market around the globe.
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