Blackhawk - The Next Generation
There's a lot of talk about future transport rotorcraft designs but I think the one thing that routinely gets overlooked is the latent potential that exists within the current Blackhawk family of helicopters that has yet to be realized. Using existing technologies, we could easily and cost-effectively overhaul the existing Blackhawk fleet into a much more capable and versatile force.
Many have discussed the potential of the Blackhawk as a gunship, particularly in a top-attack role. Because the Blackhawk has substantial payload potential, we can easily fit an assortment of guns with a lot of ammunition and attack targets from above while keeping the helicopter operating at altitudes where small arms and heat seeking missiles cannot reach. Using the external stores system, the Blackhawk can also carry Hellfire missiles and could easily carry FFAR rockets as well. But these same gunships could also be used to carry personnel as well. By using the Blackhawk as the basic gunship in the force, we can have larger quantities of both capabilities available to the force.
With the top attack configuration, we also get the potential of a medium altitude recon platform. Instead of keeping the helicopter low and limiting its field of view, we take a higher altitude and get a much better view of the battlefield while keeping the platform at a safe distance from enemy fire.
Another option many have proposed is to use the Blackhawk as an airborne artillery platform. The idea is that the Blackhawk would fire indirect rockets from a hover and then fly back to a safe location for an ammunition handling site. This reduces the problem of ammunition resupply having to keep up with manuever forces. It also allows for a greater variety of firing positions as the Blackhawk can hover anywhere including over water.
We can also add a top-attack capability to this artillery role. With its substantial payload and external stores system, there's really no reason we couldn't develop a rack to carry 155mm shells on the external stores and simply drop them from a high altitude hover. This could be a very effective option in heavy and urban terrains where the enemy can hide behind physical obstacles to avoid existing artillery. It would also give conventional dumb rounds an accuracy on par with guided rounds. And it offers the same advantages of reducing the needs of moving ammunition resupply with the manuever force.
Now, if we had the Helicopter Self-Deployment System to these same helicopters, things start to get real interesting. We get the same options we're already adding but now we add greater range and speed. Another side benefit to the compound conversion is that we can also achieve greater altitudes - some compound designs can reach as high as 20,000 feet. We also are adding the means for the helicopter to operate autonomously - we can program a flight path into the system and it can carry out the flight/mission without a pilot or crew. This isn't something we would want to make a habit of, but it is a very useful option that would be available to the force. Most importantly, it makes the entire tactical helicopter force self-deployable.
Dedicated Compound Blackhawks
A portion of the Blackhawk fleet should be dedicated compound helicopters. In particular, the Blackhawks of the airborne and air assault divisions should be compounds. In a vertical assault role, the compound helicopter has significant advantages to offer that can be utilized best in a purpose built design.
In particular, a dedicated compound should include wings that can be tilted to enhance maneuverability but also to be turned vertical to avoid disrupting the airflow from the rotor in a hover. We can also investigate the potential of making the landing gear retractable since we're going to be running hydraulics to that area of the aircraft anyways. Instead of weaponizing these platforms, it may be more beneficial to focus our efforts on defensive measures in this aircraft including smoke systems, flare systems, and laser blinders
What this gives us is a versatile helicopter fleet that serves a wide variety of roles to meet the needs of the force. It will remain as our primary logistics rotorcraft but it can also serve in a variety of ways to support these logistics roles. It can protect other logistics assets and it can also reduce the overall logistics burden of the force. All of these benefits are available in a system that would no longer require large aircraft like the C-5 to deliver it to the theater.
Some talk of the future of rotorcraft design - the reality is that the future is already here. We simply need to open our eyes and embrace the possible instead of opening the taxpayers' wallets and chasing pipe dreams.