Time for the U.S. Navy to Set a Clear Course for Rotorcraft Modernization

By Carl Forsling and Chris Misner

Even as aviation technology continues to advance across much of the military, especially in TACAIR, some of the U.S. Navy’s most utilized aircraft are well overdue for replacement. Simply put, it is time for the Navy to modernize its vertical lift assets.

There are new assets on the horizon, such as the unmanned Bell V-247 Vigilant, ready to deliver versatility, speed, and range that simply cannot be replicated by current systems.

Legacy Technology

In 1961, the SH-3 Sea King began its service with the U.S. Navy. Its maximum airspeed was just over 140 knots and it could fly approximately 550 nautical miles. Primarily designed for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), the Sea King would also serve as a utility and search and rescue (SAR) aircraft until it was retired in 2006.

In the early 1970s, the Navy selected the SH-2 to serve as the Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) providing both Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) and Surface Action Groups (SAGs) a more robust ASW and anti-surface warfare (ASuW) capability.

Time saw both the SH-2 and SH-3 being replaced first by the Sikorsky SH-60B and F, and again by the MH-60R and S. Those aircraft have a maximum speed of just over 140 knots and a range on internal fuel of about 450 nautical miles.

So, after over 60 years, during a period of immense technological change, the U.S. Navy’s primary ASW and ASuW assets are traveling roughly the same speed and range as they did when the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of today’s Sailors served.

A Changing Operational Environment

As those previous generations turned over the watch, missile technology far outpaced that of the helicopters doing the sensing for them. When the Sea King was fielded, anti-surface missiles were in their infancy—the stalwart Harpoon was still two decades away. Today, the Naval Strike Missile reaches at least 115nm and the newest Tomahawk Block V can hit ships at distances of over 1000nm.

The range of those and similar weapons has enabled Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), the Navy’s current operational construct. But, just as important, the Navy’s most likely adversaries have weapons that reach just as far. Both sides of this equation are combining to generate increased dispersion of naval forces.

Even as the dispersion of naval forces and their striking ranges increases every year, Naval air assets have not kept up. Especially in SAGs, which have no organic fixed-wing aircraft, existing helicopters cannot provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (ISR&T) at the ranges needed to fully exploit the capabilities of their ships.

This is not just the manned helicopters mentioned earlier, but also their unmanned aerial systems (UAS). While currently fielded UASs have significant time-on-station, their ranges, speeds, and payloads are still insufficient to fully support the weapons aboard surface combatants like DDGs, much less carry weapons of their own.

Theater and strategic assets, from the MQ-4 Triton to P-8 Poseidon to satellite assets, are incredibly capable but will likely not be on station when and where a tactical commander needs them the most. The U.S. Navy needs a Group Four or Five unmanned system that can operate from surface combatants, especially the DDGs that provide the bulk of the long-range firepower of the SAG.

With each passing day, that capability gap becomes increasingly urgent.

Vertical Flight Enables Distributed Operations

Few technologies can enable such a system to takeoff vertically from a destroyer’s flight deck, while traveling at operationally relevant speeds and ranges while carrying a useful load of sensors and weapons. Tiltrotor is the only one that has proven itself operationally relevant and suitable.

Tiltrotors have already changed the art of the possible with manned aircraft. The V-22 Osprey has flown over 700,000 flight hours across the Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy, performing missions across the spectrum of conflict in every operational environment. The next generation of tiltrotor, the Bell V-280 Valor, has taken the lessons learned from the V-22 and further improved performance, maintainability, and sustainability.

An unmanned tiltrotor would bring this type of capability to practically any vessel in the fleet.

Bell Textron Inc. has proposed exactly this in the V-247 Vigilant. Two V-247s working together, each with over seven hours of time on station, can maintain continuous coverage over an area of interest over 300nm from their base. This is the type of capability that previously required fixed-wing aircraft, such as the P-8 Poseidon or S-3 Viking. Unlike the V-247, the P-8 requires a land base to operate from. The S-3 could operate from an aircraft carrier but was retired from fleet service over a decade ago with no replacement.

The V-247 would greatly enhance the lethality of all ships in a distributed environment. This would first come from providing targeting data to its DDG or any other platform in the kill-web. It could also extend the striking range of the DDG itself—a V-247 could carry ordnance such as Joint Strike Missiles to kill large surface combatants, JAGM to kill swarms of small craft, or torpedoes to kill submarines.

A high-speed, long-endurance, multi-mission platform like the V-247 increases the effectiveness of every other naval and joint asset in the fight, both manned and unmanned.

The V-247’s speed and on-station time allow it to scan vast areas, enabling other assets to prosecute targets more effectively and efficiently. This might mean detecting a submarine for an MH-60R to localize and engage, directing an MH-60S to rescue a downed aviator in the water, or becoming a network node to exercise control of other UASs. If paired with other tiltrotor assets, like CMV-22 or a Maritime Strike V-280 Valor, the compatibility in speed makes such teaming even more effective.

This enables the right platforms and weapons to be matched to the right missions, saving flight hours, ordnance, and ultimately lives, throughout the fleet.

Even more importantly, it facilitates DMO, allowing maximum dispersion of friendly assets and standoff from the enemy, increasing survivability in a near-peer engagement.

The V-247 is not only unmanned but unmatched.

The authors are Senior Managers at Bell.