War in Ukraine brings design lessons for Sikorsky’s latest helicopter


The Defiant-X prototype that Sikorsky is building is a stark departure from the standard design, with a stacked rotor blade assembly for nimble agility and a tail assembly built for speed.

Will the state-of-the-art helicopter look radically different in a few years, whether to the casual viewer or a seasoned pilot? This could be one of the results of a crash course that Pentagon planners are receiving as they analyze the success of Ukrainian soldiers in shooting down Russian helicopters.

The lessons from Ukraine could affect future US helicopter purchases and, by extension, Sikorsky and its parent company Lockheed Martin.

Alongside Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky are vying with Textron subsidiary Bell to replace the Black Hawk helicopter used by the US military, and similar multi-mission helicopters like the Seahawk. Builders expect the Pentagon to issue a decision by July – with major implications for the Pentagon’s “Future Vertical Lift” goal for a general-purpose platform that can be adapted to other classes of aircraft. planes.

And eclipsing all that is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with both sides claiming to have shot down dozens of helicopters, using weapons ranging from small arms to the newest missiles in NATO’s arsenal.

The Sikorsky team designed Defiant-X to tackle the wide range of missions the Black Hawk performs today. Defiant-X will have sets of twin rotors that spin in opposite directions to provide significantly improved maneuverability over standard helicopters.

Textron and Bell offer the Valor-280, which uses tilt-rotor technology to take off like a helicopter and then fly like an airplane.

“If we’re not selected, it’s going to be a big deal – for sure,” Sikorsky president Paul Lemmo said, speaking Wednesday during a media tour on Sikorsky’s progress in upgrading its plant. Stratford for Defiant-X and future helicopters.

“We have other programs here, but we would definitely be smaller than we are today as Black Hawk goes out of production. … The stakes are high for all companies involved.

‘A2/AD’ era

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added an additional dimension for the Ministry of Defense to consider, given the success of Ukrainian soldiers in shooting down Russian helicopters. This success came despite Ukraine lacking the sophistication of “A2/AD” capabilities, the military acronym referring to the ability to thwart enemy aircraft incursions across an entire theater of fight.

Lemmo acknowledged that the Pentagon’s assessments could have ramifications for future helicopter designs. He said Defiant-X is designed to be able to hug any landscape at very low altitudes and high speeds, making it much less vulnerable to ground fires.

The exact nature of the information that Sikorsky receives or will receive from the Pentagon on the war in Ukraine remains confidential.

“Obviously I can’t talk about a lot of things, but what I would say in general is that I’m not sure Russian helicopters have the kind of systems on them that American helicopters have. [have] in terms of self-defense,” Lemmo said Wednesday.

“We’ll be looking to the military and other services for feedback – what we know is what we’ve seen on TV, so we’ll probably have to get a classified debrief and really understand. And I’m sure some of that will mean new requirements.

There are many precedents for adjusting equipment needs based on hard lessons from the front lines. A stark example is the experience of US ground forces in Afghanistan, which had to equip a jury with protective armor and change tactics for vehicles repeatedly hit by explosives hidden along roads.

More recently, the US Air Force scaled back plans to purchase Sikorsky helicopters to rescue pilots shot down in hostile territory. During a tour of the Stratford plant on Wednesday, a Sikorsky executive called the HH-60W Jolly Green II the most advanced combat helicopter Sikorsky has ever produced, with a range of defensive measures to survive enemy fire .

In its latest budget request for fiscal year 2023, however, the Department of Defense revealed that the US Air Force is now reducing its planned purchase of HH-60W helicopters, as reported by military trade publication Breaking Defense. . From initial plans of more than 110 Jolly Green IIs, the Air Force now plans to field just 75 in all.

Breaking Defense quoted Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall as saying the decision was the result of updated assessments of Russian and Chinese military capabilities.

“We were surprised to hear this news,” Lemmo said Wednesday. “I think there’s still a lot of discussion going on.”

“Cost of inaction”

All eyes are now on the Future Vertical Lift program as the Pentagon decides which Sikorsky-Boeing or Bell aircraft is best suited to the range of missions faced by wartime commanders and, by extension, military personnel. peacetime tasks such as responding to natural or humanitarian disasters. seizures.

In public comments this week to the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth included Future Vertical Lift among the Army’s ongoing priorities, along with missile defenses, a new ground combat vehicle, aerial drones and many others.

“The military can’t afford not to invest in FVL – these programs have momentum, are working well, and need to be done,” Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society business group, said in a statement. a written comment published in February.

“The United States is in a constant state of competition with peer and near-peer competitors regardless of current budgets, and the cost of inaction is high.”

It’s a move that also has significant implications for Connecticut’s economy, with Sikorsky last reported employing more than 8,100 people at Stratford, a satellite factory in Bridgeport, where it builds Black Hawk airframes; a Trumbull helicopter maintenance unit; and engineering offices in Shelton.

In April, the Connecticut General Assembly signed Governor Ned Lamont’s deal for Lockheed Martin to get $50 million in aid from the state of Connecticut if it wins the contract, in exchange for Sikorsky’s headquarters. who will remain in Stratford for the next 20 years. while maintaining employment levels.

The price would rise to $75 million if Sikorsky was chosen in a few years to produce a new armed reconnaissance helicopter for the military, with Bell also vying for that deal.

“We are extremely happy with this,” Lemmo said on Wednesday. “It’s going to help us stay competitive.”

With its stacked array of counter-rotating blades and rear-mounted “thruster” prop, the Defiant-X is an engineering marvel that Sikorsky has been working on for several years. An early prototype won Sikorsky the Collier Trophy ten years ago, awarded annually for the best achievement in aviation and aerospace.

As an example, Mike Ambrose, Vice President of Business Transformation for the company, demonstrated how the helicopter’s rotor configuration allows it to steer towards a low target or landing area and with all weapons trained on it, then quickly retreating back suppressing fire if the need arises. .

In a Black Hawk, Ambrose said, the pilot’s best option for escape would be to accelerate into a banking curve, exposing him to a sustained burst of fire from below.

John McGonagle knows as much as anyone about this kind of scenario in his role as chief pilot at Sikorsky, and before that as a colonel in the US Marine Corps.

“From the pilot’s perspective, you just lost your visual cues,” McGonagle said. “With this machine, you get a perfect profile every time.”

[email protected]; 203-842-2545; @casoulman

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