Warfighters Need A New ‘Tested’ Helicopter Engine

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Earlier this year, the Army declared General Electric (GE) the winner of the competition for the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP), which will replace the existing power plants on Black Hawk and Apache helicopters and potentially power the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA). This will be a 50-to-75-year program. Yet, the award was based on a preliminary design review, essentially a paper description of the proposed engine. Limited testing of components was performed, but not of an entire working engine.

Because of budgetary constraints, the Army chose not to follow the common practice of funding for competing engine designs into Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD). The result is a greater risk to the warfighter. The Army would be wise to invest the relatively small amount of money required to take both that engine and the one proposed by its competitor, the Advanced Turbine Engine Company (ATEC), further into EMD, particularly to engine testing. Doing so would give the warfighters confidence that they were getting the best helicopter engine possible.

The Army does not acquire new helicopter engines very often. The engine that ITEP will replace, the T700, was developed in the early 1970s and has been in production for more than 40 years. Despite undergoing repeated upgrades, the T700 is reaching the end of its days and must be replaced by one that is both more powerful and efficient.

The Army began funding development of a new engine for the Black Hawk and Apache more than ten years ago, even as it pursued the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program to replace both of these aircraft. It was clear that regardless of the success of the FVL program, these existing helicopters would continue in operation for decades to come. Since they were first deployed, both the Black Hawk and Apache have gained weight, which made them slower and put increased strain on their T700 engines. In addition, conflicts around the world have challenged Army Aviation to operate in high, hot and dirty environments that pose additional challenges to engine performance. ITEP had a very ambitious goal: to develop a new engine that had 50 percent more horsepower, used 25 percent less fuel, with a 20 percent longer service life and that would be easier to maintain than the engine it replaced.

Because of the importance of ITEP to the future of Army Aviation, it might have been expected that the program would follow the common practice of taking both competing designs into EMD. At a minimum, continuing both designs through Preliminary Flight Rating (PFR) would provide the Army with performance data based on hundreds or even thousands of hours of engine operating time on a test stand. This is particularly important insofar as the Army wants an engine with greater fuel efficiency and longer service life. These attributes can only be demonstrated through rigorous and extensive testing.

Historically, both the Army and Air Force have chosen to require competitors for engine programs to produce and demonstrate complete prototype engines. In many cases, at least two competitors were carried through EMD. This was how the Army conducted the competition to build the T700 in the 1960s. It took the same approach in the late 1990s for the T800 engine for the canceled RAH-66 Comanche. The Air Force acted in the same way when it developed the F119 engine that powers the F-22 and the F135 engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In each of these instances, there were significant changes made to the design of the competing engines during the test phase.

Nor is this the policy being followed by Army Futures Command and the Cross-Functional Teams in pushing the state of technology in multiple areas. Whether it is FVL, the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle or Long-Range Precision Fires, the Army has demanded competitors produce a significant number of prototypes for testing.

The Army originally wanted to take both candidate engines through PFR to acquire valuable data on which to make a downselect. It changed its mind as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011 which threatened to severely cut defense spending. The Army decided not to carry both engine companies through EMD and instead make a source selection based solely on the preliminary design review.

But times have changed, and the Army has a lot more money than it expected when it changed the acquisition strategy for ITEP. Moreover, it has increased R&D spending overall to jumpstart its modernization priorities.

In view of past practice with developing military aircraft engines, it is fair to say that the Army’s ITEP award was a funding-constrained decision based on the best, but very limited, information available at the time. More data, particularly through testing during EMD, would ensure the best decision. Testing can also make a significant contribution to risk reduction.

By not taking both ITEP engines into EMD, the Army will lose the benefit of having ATEC’s highly skilled design team also actively working on further engine innovations. This is a potential risk given all the uncertainties that exist regarding the requirements for FVL and other future military rotor aircraft. The Army is already looking at ways of getting higher speeds from future tiltrotor aircraft.

The Army expects to spend $30-40 billion replacing the Black Hawk and Apache engines and operating them for up to four decades. For approximately one percent of these lifetime costs, $75-100 million for the next three or four years, the Army could take a second engine into EMD to have full confidence in the ITEP award plus get info on an additional engine that could power other helicopters.

If the Army truly wants to support the warfighter not only now, but for much of the next century, it should spend the extra money to assure itself that it has made the right choice with respect to ITEP. At the same time, it will gain additional insights into the future possibilities for advanced aircraft engines, buy down risk and improve the strength of the helicopter industrial base.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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