Future Battlefield Rotorcraft Capability

Operating in the Land and Littoral Environment Anno 2035 - Part 2: Analysing Future User Requirements

By Colonel

By Col



, BE


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2016-2018)

 March 2018

This topic was the subject of an essay paper the author wrote under supervision of the University of Lincoln, UK. For the purpose of JAPCC Journal publication, the essay has been divided into three parts split over the previous issue (Edition 24), this issue (Edition 25), and the issue to come (Edition 26). An overall introduction to the topic was published in Edition 23.1


Part 1 of the ‘Future Battlefield Rotorcraft Capability’ trilogy was published in the previous edition of this journal. The article analysed different aspects of the ‘Future Operating Environment’ and how these will directly impact the Future Battlefield Rotorcraft Capability (FBRC) in terms of technology requirements.2 In summary, the FBRC will likely have to consist of both manned and unmanned (remotely piloted or autonomous) platforms of purely military design that allows for the effective integration of the full range of protective equipment needed to operate and survive in extremely hostile environments. The next step in the analytical process is to evaluate how future user requirements are likely to shape the FBRC.

FBRC Roles

Air Transport. The foremost important role for rotorcraft3 is, without doubt, air transport in all its forms and shapes. Rotorcraft have the unique ability to hover, land practically everywhere and overcome virtually any natural or artificial obstacle across the battlespace while moving at least ten times faster than ground assets. This has made rotorcraft an indispensable asset for warfighters at all levels of command over the past few decades.

Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC), Special Forces (SF) and Personnel Recovery (PR). Next to the classic rotorcraft role of transporting troops and goods across the Area of Operations (AoO), we have witnessed the development of specialized transport rotorcraft in support of MEDEVAC, SF and PR operations. Although these specific operations are being conducted at the tactical level, they often are of strategic importance4, and will continue to be so with the FBRC.

Sensor-and-Shooter. A further role is that of the ‘sensor-and-shooter’ for which rotorcraft, such as the Apache or Tiger combat helicopters, have been specifically developed to provide augmented Situational Awareness (SA) and precise Fire Support (FSp) to support ground forces in the pursuit of their objectives. Despite their very effective and efficient contribution to operations in the land environment, it is only fair to state that rotorcraft share this role with manned combat aircraft and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), each with their inherent advantages and disadvantages. Although in the past some rotorcraft have been designed to exclusively execute Reconnaissance and Surveillance (R&S) missions, there is evidence to believe that these variants will no longer be found on the battlefields of the future, and that their missions will be executed by combat helicopters teaming up with RPA as it is already largely the case in the United States Army.5

FBRC Core Missions

The vast majority of FBRC operations will take place in the commitment phase6 of any operation where the more static Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) are linked to temporary Forward Operating Locations (FOLs), out of which tactical operations will be planned and launched by rather small units. Depending on the characteristics of the AoO, these FOBs could be land as well as sea-based.

In the future, both FOBs and FOLs will be manned with less personnel and equipment than is currently the case, as is described by the British House of Commons Defence Committee in its Future Army 2020 plan.7 The NATO Research and Technology Organisation (RTO) confirms that this trend will endure into the considered timeframe (2035 and beyond). In its Joint Operations 2030 Final Report the RTO clearly states: ‘In the future, military operations will increasingly be the domain of small units and teams … that must generally execute autonomous, independent missions for considerable periods of time.’8 So what kind of core missions will this commitment phase generate for the FBRC and how will they shape the FBRC in terms of size and performance?

Routine logistic resupply. The first mission is routine logistic resupply where all kinds of consumables will need to be transported. In particular, when it becomes virtually impossible to effectively and efficiently resupply by means of ground convoys, due to the nature of the terrain, road infrastructure or threat, these missions will become a priority for the FBRC and might become very resource consuming. Consequently, they will more than likely be executed by remotely piloted, or even autonomous, rotorcraft thus liberating the manned rotorcraft for more time-sensitive or complex missions where maximum flexibility and quick thinking is required.

MEDEVAC and Quick Reaction Force (QRF) Stand-by. Second, there are the tactically and strategically crucial 24/7 stand-by missions for which dedicated rotorcraft and crews will be put on very short notice-to-move. Both the MEDEVAC and Quick Reaction Force (QRF) stand-by missions will remain priority missions, albeit at considerable cost in terms of platform and crew allocation. Given the nature of these missions, it is fair to believe that they will be executed by manned rotorcraft and escorted by unmanned ones whenever required.

Direct support to tactical level operations. Third, there are the missions in direct support of a specific operation at the lower tactical levels. Generally, these operations will generate a series of missions and tasks for the FBRC. It all starts with the insertion of a tailored Task Force (TF) into the Engagement Area (EA) by transport rotorcraft while combat rotorcraft provide augmented SA and FSp. After the insertion, and in addition to the aforementioned standby missions, assets will need to be ready to execute R&S, FSp as well as punctual or emergency resupply missions for the duration of the engagement. Here again, some of those resupply missions could be conducted by unmanned rotorcraft. Finally, the operation ends with an escorted extraction of the TF from the EA back to the FOL or FOB for reconditioning. Even though it is at this moment quite impossible to predict the exact number of soldiers in those future smaller units and teams, it would be safe to assume that tailored-to-the-mission TF elements would range from specialized teams of 4 to 6 soldiers to sections of 10 to 15 soldiers to platoons of 30 to 45 soldiers.

A first observation is that for considerations of effectiveness, three types of transport rotorcraft would be required, as it is the case today. By lack of a better definition, they will henceforth be referred to as ‘light’, ‘medium’ and ‘heavy’.9

A second observation is the continued requirement for combat rotorcraft, able to escort the transport packages while providing them with superior SA and precision FSp. Furthermore, these combat rotorcraft should be able to command and control RPA to significantly add reach, persistence, SA and FSp to their intrinsic capabilities.

Weight and Size Considerations

In many of the aforementioned FBRC missions, the expected total weight of transported personnel and equipment is a factor that requires special consideration. Combat patrols operating in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade saw soldiers carrying personal equipment loads of approximately 58 kg.10 In the future, our forces will have to be able to operate even more independently and for considerably longer periods. This will translate into increased loads of equipment and supplies soldiers will have to carry. New technology in the form of exoskeletons may reduce the soldier’s burden but, at the same time, allow him to carry even more. By consequence, the average total weight to be transported will increase dramatically. As a guideline for future rotorcraft capability development, the NATO Army Armament Group assesses an average weight of 150 kg per soldier should be taken into consideration.11 In addition, extra capacity should be foreseen to cater for collective equipment such as larger portable weapon systems or remotely controlled air and ground vehicles, to name just a few. All of this might well add up to a total weight of 200 kg per capita to be internally transported. Additionally, it is to be expected that even larger pieces of equipment or cargo might need to be transported externally, especially by the medium and heavy transport rotorcraft. This will obviously come at a considerable cost with regard to aircraft performance.

When combining these cargo load requirements with the sizes of the different future TF elements, it becomes quite obvious that the cargo load thresholds related to the currently used ‘light, medium and heavy classification’, as well as the current NATO capability codes,12 will need serious revision. However, within the context of the development of an entirely new capability, this is only to be expected.

Speed and Range Considerations

A lot of attention is being given recently to what the speed of the next generation of battlefield rotorcraft should be. Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) have been extremely challenging for helicopters, in particular for those in the MEDEVAC role, due to the nature and especially dimensions13 of the AoO. During OIF, but even more so during OEF, bases were very isolated and operations were often dependant on the availability of MEDEVAC helicopters, and the distances they could cover, to be able to respect the famous medical ‘golden hour’ rule.

The paramount importance of the MEDEVAC mission in any future operation has prompted US Army medical planners to perform a capability analysis14 associated with the Future Vertical Lift program. Their findings are based on zero-risk planning assumptions and on rather ambitious future AoO dimensions15 for their Brigade Combat Teams (BCT). To be able to respect the golden hour they concluded that for a 300 x 300 km square AoO (90,000 square km), a speed of 350 knots would be required. For a ‘more conventional’ 150 km radius AoO (70,650 square km), a speed of 250 knots would do the job. Set against the OEF background, this would have meant that the number of MEDEVAC facilities could have been reduced from 13 to 8 when the speed is doubled from the ‘current 125 knots’ to the ‘future 250 knots’. Although the advantages of higher speeds are obvious with regard to logistic footprint and the total number of assets required for one specific theatre, one should not overestimate its importance compared to other, and perhaps more important, requirements. These requirements include manoeuvrability and survivability in the complex, confined areas that will be found in the mega-cities of the future. A similar line of thought can be followed for range, especially when considering the potential future requirements for SF and PR missions. The classic trade-off between cargo and range can, however, be partially offset by means of additional internal or external fuel tanks.

Additional Resource Demands

For obvious reasons, rotorcraft have always been instrumental in successful Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations, and there is no reason to believe that this will change in the considered timeframe.16 Especially during ongoing military operations, this combined requirement for potentially scarce resources might put a lot of pressure on the FBRC.

A third observation is an enduring requirement for sufficient numbers of rotorcraft to satisfy simultaneous military and humanitarian needs.

Conclusions and Outlook

Forces that will operate in the land and littoral environment of 2035 and beyond will require the continuing support of a robust rotorcraft capability able to execute a variety of missions. The nature of these missions dictates the requirement for several types of platforms in sufficient numbers to satisfy the needs of the military as well as non-military customers, all with their specific demands with regard to availability and capability. Similar as in many other military domains, quantity will definitely constitute a quality of its own in the FBRC.

Technological evolutions can be expected that increase speed and range significantly. But both planners and developers should be careful not to let these requirements prevail too much. Other specific platform requirements need to be considered simultaneously, such as manoeuvrability and survivability at low speeds and heights in megacity environments, or personnel and cargo load capacities in support of the various, previously mentioned missions.

Although synergy in design is to be expected, the FBRC will need two or possibly three manned transport types; a combat variant of one of those types and two unmanned transport types to satisfy specific needs. While budget rationality dictates to keep rotorcraft as simple and modular as possible, a one-solution-fits-all trend as observed in the fixed-wing fighter domain would be very unrealistic for the FRBC due to the variety in roles and missions.

The final part of this essay will be published in JAPCC Journal Edition 26. It will aim to describe the FBRC following the standardized NATO DOTMLPFI outline17, while the main focus will be on Organisation, Material and Interoperability.

Szabo, M. ‘The Future NATO Rotorcraft Force’. In JAPCC Journal Edition 23, 2016, p. 57–61.
Schoepen, W. ‘Future Battlefield Rotorcraft Capability. Part 1: Analysing the Future Operating Environment’. In JAPCC Journal Edition 24, 2017, p. 28–32.
Within the context of these articles, the term ‘rotorcraft’ will encompass all types of aircraft that have helicopter-like flight profiles regardless of the lift and propulsion system they use. Consequently this includes all types of contemporary lift and propulsion systems such as single rotor helicopters (e.g.: UH-60), twin counter-rotating intermeshing rotor helicopters (e.g.: K-MAX), twin counter-rotating co-axial rotor helicopters (e.g.: Ka-52) or counter-rotating tandem rotor helicopters (e.g.: CH-47) as well as tilt rotors (e.g.: MV-22). Also, any kind of future or even futuristic types of propulsion yet to be developed may fit into this definition.
Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2014) Present Paradox Future Challenge. Kalkar, Germany: The Joint Air Power Competence Centre.
Gilbert, E. (2016) Apaches, UASs soon to replace OH-58s. IHS Janes Defence Weekly, Nr 128, 12.
Considering an operational phasing consisting of the strategic deployment phase, including Reception, Staging, Onward Movement & Integration (RSOM&I), the actual commitment phase and the strategic redeployment phase including reverse RSOM&I.
House of Commons Defence Committee (2014) Future Army 2020 – Ninth Report of Session 2013–14. HC 576. London: The Stationary Office.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Research and Technology Organization) (2011) Joint Operations 2030 – Final Report. Neuilly-sur-Seine, France: NATO Research and Technology Organization.
Although this classification bears a strong resemblance to the already ‘abandoned’ ATP-49 helicopter weight classification, it only serves the purpose of differentiation between the yet to be defined different rotorcraft of the FBRC.
White, A. (2016) Reducing the Burden – Managing Combat – Loads Carried by Dismounted Soldiers. Military Technology, Nr. 6, 76–80.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO Army Armament Group) (2009) NATO Staff Target for a Future Heavy Transport Helicopter. Brussels, Belgium: NATO Headquarters.
Light Utility (Transport) Helicopter: capable of lifting 5 Fully Equipped Combat Soldiers, or up to two litters or 0,5 tons of equipment, min 100 kts, 2,5 hrs combat radius 150 km at 85 % of max gross weight – Medium Transport Helicopter: capable of lifting 12 Fully Equipped Combat Soldiers, or 3 tons of equipment, min 120 kts, 2,5 hrs combat radius 150 km at 85 % of max gross weight – Heavy Transport Helicopter: capable of lifting 33 Fully Equipped Combat Soldiers, or 10 tons of equipment, min 120 kts, 2,5 hrs combat radius 150 km at 85 % of max gross weight.
Afghanistan approximately 650,000 square km; Iraq approximately 435,000 square km.
Bastian, N., Fulton, L., Mitchell, R., Pollard, W., Wierschem, D., and Wilson, R. The Future of Vertical Lift: Initial Insights for Aircraft Capability and Medical Planning. Military Medicine, Vol. 177, 863–869. (2012).
90,000 square km roughly equals the surface of the State of Maine (US), 70,650 square km roughly equals the surface of Belgium and The Netherlands together.
Ministry of Defence (2015) Strategic Trends Programme, Future Operating Environment 2035, First Edition. London, UK: Ministry of Defence.
Doctrine, Organisation, Training, Material, Leadership, Personnel, Facilities, and Interoperability.
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Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2016-2018)

Colonel (GS) Wim Schoepen joined the Belgian Defence in 1990 after having completed his academic studies at the Royal Military Academy. He received his helicopter pilot wings in 1992, became an instructor pilot in 1996 and cumulated more than 3,000 hours through different assignments in training units and operational squadrons. His operational experience started in 2000 with operation KFOR and has grown over the years with multiple EUBG, NRF and VJTF commitments. Additional staff and academic assignments have given him a solid background in education, training, operations, doctrine and policy. He also has a keen interest in strategic security and defence issues. He joined the JAPCC in 2016 as a Subject Matter Expert on Helicopter Operations.

Information provided is current as of June 2018

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NATO Views and Possible Fixes

Unmanned Aerial Systems Miniaturization

Chances and Risks of an Irreversible Trend

Detecting and Neutralizing Mini-Drones

Sensors and Effectors against an Asymmetric Threat

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