Pentagon moving ahead with new vertical lift aircraft

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (REUTERS) - The Pentagon is committed to early design work on a new aircraft that will replace thousands of helicopters now used by the United States military, its first "clean sheet design" program in years, the Army official heading the effort said on Friday.

Mr Dan Bailey, a former Apache helicopter pilot who heads the"future vertical lift" program and the research effort under way to explore possible approaches, said there was no push to reduce funding for the program, despite pressure on nearly every other arms program in the Pentagon's portfolio.

"The science and technology effort is supported 100 per cent," Mr Bailey told reporters at a conference hosted by the Association of the US Army, an Army booster group. "That's significant on its own. There is no other portfolio that is not feeling a significant cut."

US weapons makers have expressed concern that big cuts in military spending could undermine the program, one of very few new research and development efforts seen in decades, but Army officials last week said the effort was a key priority.

Army acquisition chief Heidi Shyu and General Dennis Via, who heads Army Materiel Command, both underscored their support for the program in speeches at the conference.

Mr Bailey said Pentagon budget officials left funding intact for the "joint multirole" technology demonstration project, the precursor to the future vertical lift aircraft, a program that analysts say could be worth upwards of US$100 billion (S$127 billion).

He said the Pentagon expected to spend US$354 million between 2011 and 2019 on the science and technology phase, but declined to estimate what the later development program would be worth.

Current plans call for an analysis of possible approaches for the new rotorcraft in 2016 or 2017, followed by a decision to move forward around 2018 and a contract award around 2020.

Ultimately, the program will replace between 2,000 to 4,000 medium class UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters built by Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp and Boeing Co AH-64 attack helicopters after 2030.

He said details were still being worked out for funding the subsequent production program, but it would not require major funding until it enters production around 2029 or 2030.