Lockheed Martin Sikorsky’s modernization efforts for the Black Hawk are largely focused on the ITEP engine, MOSA with the digital backbone, and launched effects. (Lockheed Martin graphic)

The Army flew its first prototype helicopter in 1942 and soon after pressed the Sikorsky XR-4 into service during World War II. Impressed by the “eggbeater” with its single lifting rotor and anti-torque tail rotor, the U.S. Army Air Force ordered 100 enhanced models primarily for combat rescue and reconnaissance.

Some 82 years later, a seismic upheaval of technological advances in today’s rotary wing aircraft are catapulting the stalwart workhorse into new realms of attack and transport, and prompting a re-imagining of rotary wing flight capabilities. We discussed these developments with Lockheed Martin Sikorsky’s Hamid Salim, vice president for Army & Air Force Systems.

Breaking Defense: What’s the role of Army vertical lift in the near-peer environment?

Hamid Salim is vice president for Army & Air Force Systems for Lockheed Martin Sikorsky.

Salim: I recently visited customers in Europe, and they’re clearly focused on Ukraine. Customers in the Pacific are focused on security and deterrence in that region, and commanders in the U.S. are telling me the next generation of helicopters need to be connected and have more range and payload. There’s a growing interest in solving for contested logistics, leveraging crewed and uncrewed capabilities, having the pilots focus more on missions than flying the helicopter.

But what I’m not hearing is that rotary aircraft are less relevant. I’m hearing that they’ll actually remain an essential part of military operations around the world for the next 50 years.

In lower-tier air domain, nothing performs better than a helicopter. It offers unmatched versatility, reach and access across varying terrain for a wide array of missions from air assault to frontline resupply and humanitarian relief. We continue to see strong demand from the U.S. and our international customers.

But we’ve got to evolve that capability for tomorrow’s missions, like installing new engines for improved turbine power to ultimately provide lift and fuel efficiency, giving commanders more flexibility. MOSA will make upgrading the enduring platform faster and easier. Crewed and uncrewed teaming will deliver critical network and intelligence in the contested environments while keeping the pilots and soldiers out of harm’s way.

Breaking Defense: How is Sikorsky responding to demand signals from the DoD and partners for helicopter capabilities?

Salim: We’ve got a robust backlog and pipeline with the Black Hawk, CH-53K King Stallion, the Air Force’s HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter, the Navy’s MH-60R Seahawk, and the S-92. We see that the orders backlog will extend well beyond 2027, as there’s high global demand for our products. We’ve seen recent wins in Australia, Romania, Croatia, Greece, and other countries. We’re also looking at next-generation rotorcraft, like our Rotor Blown Wing prototype for DARPA, and the hybrid-electric, tilt-wing aircraft we call HEX.

The Black Hawk remains the world’s most versatile utility helicopter with strong international demand. With 4,000 flying worldwide in 35 countries and 15 million flight hours, including over 5 million combat hours, it’s a proven workhorse that the Army will be flying for another 50 years.

This is an opportunity to transform the role of the helicopter – and in particular the UH-60M Black Hawk – in a 21st century security environment to play a critical role in Joint All-Domain Operations. Obviously our focus today is on transforming our operations and strengthening our supply chain in order to quickly and efficiently deliver on the global demand that we’re seeing.

As part of our One Lockheed Martin transformation initiative that we call 1LMX, we’re revolutionizing our operations and moving to an all-digital engineering activity that’ll use tools like augmented and virtual reality to streamline design, manufacturing and sustainment. By digitizing our operations, we can leverage model-based systems engineering to deliver on our orders while keeping our platforms competitive for future opportunities. Sikorsky is at the forefront of this activity with these tools already integrated into our production line and for our engineers.

DARPA and Lockheed Martin Sikorsky fly the optionally piloted Black Hawk, which includes the MATRIX autonomy solution. (Lockheed Martin photo)

Breaking Defense: Black Hawk is a cornerstone aircraft for the military. What are you doing to keep the Black Hawk relevant as missions change and threats evolve?

Salim: I reflect on Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth’s recent testimony that the Army’s going to go through a profound transformation to keep pace with technology for evolving threats. And when the current 10th multi-year contract expires, it’s the Army’s plan to enter into an 11th multi-year production contract and modernize the existing Black Hawk.

The Black Hawk helicopter is the workhorse of the division, and we’ll continue to have meaningful discussions with the Army on the roadmap for Black Hawk modernization to ensure it remains relevant in large-scale combat operation. A modernized Black Hawk will give the Army a network assault utility capability into the 2070s.

Our modernization efforts are largely focused on the ITEP engine, MOSA with the digital backbone, and launched effects.

The installation of the improved turbine engine is a key component of the roadmap to a modernized Black Hawk. It’ll offer 50 percent more power than the T700 and a 25 percent increase in fuel efficiency so the aircraft has more range and payload. The new ITEP will give division commanders more options for planning and executing assault missions. This will be a game changer for the Army, and also for the National Guard units. The ITEP also enhances safety, reduces operating costs and provides growth for the future needs of the warfighter.

Regarding MOSA, we’re leveraging significant modular open system approach investments in FARA and applying that to the Black Hawk. We’ve been developing the MOSA infrastructure to show rapid integration of new capability, and demonstrating crewed and uncrewed teaming technologies that can be used by pilots, crew, and ground personnel.

We’re also demonstrating the benefit of digital infrastructures that allow our customer to make organic changes to aircraft while enabling distributed situational awareness. Black Hawk could carry and manage a squadron of launched effects drones to be the forward-deployed eyes and ears for the division commander. We’ve been doing this both in Future Vertical Lift and Black Hawk simulators and aircraft, showing how these assets can seamlessly work together to give our ground commanders a tactical edge.

By employing open systems and automation, we’ve been able to show how FVL technologies can translate to the enduring fleet and allow platforms like the Black Hawk to realize the benefits of the investments we’ve been making for Future Vertical Lift.

All of that is to make sure that the Black Hawk of tomorrow is better than the Black Hawk of today.

Breaking Defense: What’s the status of the autonomous Black Hawk program? How about autonomy in general regarding crewed-uncrewed capabilities at Sikorsky?

Salim: Our CEO Jim Taiclet has shared his vision of 21st century security, and it includes dramatic advancements in autonomy. Since 2013, Sikorsky Innovations has been developing and testing a suite of technologies called MATRIX that ultimately allow not only our helicopters but also fixed-wing aircraft to be flown with various levels of autonomy. Now having demonstrated the MATRIX autonomy suite on over 10 aircraft, including the S-76, the Black Hawk S-70/UH-60, as well as the Cessna 208 Caravan, we’re seeing strong interest from the military and commercial sectors for platforms that are both enabled by higher levels of automation and that offer added safety and efficiency.

In the past two years, Sikorsky has demonstrated how an autonomous Black Hawk can be quickly programmed and launched to drop water on a wildfire soon after it was detected, and how an uncrewed Black Hawk controlled by MATRIX can resupply troops in contested airspace. We have an example of the OPV (optionally piloted vehicle) Black Hawk that carried internal cargo in a sling load at just 200 feet of altitude at a high speed to simulate the battle environment.