The Army has tasked the Utility Helicopter office to take a hard look at its portfolio, and see if the programs and platforms are optimized and the numbers the service is procuring are correct, the project office’s top official said.

“Everything we’ve seen to this date is extremely encouraging,” Col. Thomas Todd, project manager for Utility Helicopters within PEO Aviation, said in an interview. 

The project office portfolio includes Sikorsky [UTX] UH-60 Black Hawks, the Alpha, Lima and Mike Models, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co.’s (EADS) Lakota and Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) helicopters. The work also involves the new L-Digital program, a new engine program, foreign military sales (FMS) and work as a center of excellence on utility helicopters that involves other services and government agencies.

“Our mission hasn’t changed,” Todd said. “It’s still the U.S. soldier and U.S. soldiers are the centerpiece of everything we do at Utility.”

For example, in July the Army signed a new, $8.5 billion, five-year Multiyear VIII production contract for 653 UH-60 Black Hawks and Sea Hawk helicopters. The contract “provided a very good economic price point” to achieve the savings the service wanted, he said. “We have provided a little bit of flexibility so that we could absorb whatever goals we were given through sequestration and internal to the Army.”

Another program is the L-Digital program that involves about one-third of the Black hawk fleet, the 760 Lima models. 

“Our L-digital plan plans to digitize those and bring them up to basically a similar Mike model…without a new airframe. Todd said. “We’ll take existing L-model airframes and extend their lives so we bridge the gap between now and (Joint Multi-Role) JMR medium or Future Vertical Lift or whatever comes to replace them.”

The Mike model production model and the L-digital program take care of the entire Black Hawk fleet until the Army is ready to make the decision for a future replacement.

“There’s a total of 2,135 aircraft in the Black Hawk fleet,” Todd said. “We’re in pretty good shape.” 

The light utility UH-72A Lakota helicopter also is in good shape, he said. “We plan to stand down the production part of the program and enter sustainment and maintenance phase of the platform.” 

The Army wants a total of 315 aircraft, down from the initial 345. The reduction comes because the service decided the OH-58 helicopters in the training fleet can continue to perform those missions and Lakotas aren’t needed. The National Guard will continue to receive their full complement of Lakotas. 

The Army is still in the middle of fielding and production of the UH-72A. There are 255 of the aircraft on contract, with about 210 fielded. 

A modernization program is under way to provide a better engine for the Black Hawk and Apache fleets, the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP).  A successful Defense Acquisition Board review this year allowed an Analysis of Alternatives to move forward, something that is in progress right now. 

While the ITEP program is to provide more than about 50 percent power than the current engine, the program also has “a goal of decreasing fuel consumption by up to 25 percent, which means for us putting 25 percent less tanker trucks on the road in harm’s way, which means spending 25 percent less, and then ultimately consuming 25 percent less,” fitting in with the Army’s larger environmental goals.   

The combat aviation brigade commander will be able to do more on the same fuel, saving the taxpayer money while the Army sees “real, tangible savings” in fuel consumption.

Another modernization effort for the Mike model Black Hawk is the Global Air Traffic Management (GATM) program to provide the Mike models with Area Navigation (RNAV)/Required Navigation Performance (RNP) capability. This will reduce the reliance on ground-based navigational aids for flying under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). 

Using their onboard GPS, Black Hawks both overseas and at home, will be able to operate in controlled airspace without any restrictions, and perform some of the most complex procedures around the world.

“It will be a huge benefit to our Black Hawks operating in controlled airspace,” Todd said. Currently, Black Hawks primarily use ground navigation aids–Visual Omnidirectional Range (VOR) and Instrument Landing Systems (ILS)—and the GPS will allow more precision approaches without relying on VOR or ILS, some of which are being taken out of service. 

Part of the mission to take care of soldiers also involves working closely with the medical community to tweak equipment in the back of the aircraft to provide as much care as possible as far forward on the battlefield as possible. The Black Hawk is the Army’s primary air ambulance and the service relies on its speed and range. 

“The Army now has a paramedic ability as opposed to just a combat medic capability in the back of the Black Hawk,” Todd said. “Now they can provide the same paramedic care and trauma treatment inside the Black Hawk until they get back and drop them at a field hospital.”