Army Next-Gen Helicopter: 'We are not going to yield the air domain'
Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Chief Warrant Officer 4 Daniel McClinton
WASHINGTON -- Historically, it has taken well over a decade to bring a new aircraft into the Army's inventory. But the Army can't wait that long to replace its fleet of rotary-wing aircraft, said Brig. Gen. Walter Rugen. So now, the Army plans to deliver a whole family of new vertical-lift aircraft in less than 10 years.
Rugen, a rotary-wing pilot with more than 2,200 hours of flight time in the MH-60K/L Black Hawk, UH-1 Iroquois, and OH-6 Little Bird, serves as deputy commander for support with the 7th Infantry Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. He is also now dual-hatted as the head of the Army's newly-created Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team.
The team is one of eight designed to expedite the Army's pursuit of six modernization priorities. Those priorities, first laid out in October by the Army's Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, are air and missile defense; long-range precision fires; a next-generation combat vehicle; future vertical lift; the Army's network; and Soldier lethality.
The Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team, or FVL CFT, is focused on replacing legacy Army aircraft such as the CH-47 Chinook, the AH-64 Apache, and the Black Hawk with a new family of aircraft that share a common architecture. New FVL aircraft must "increase our reach, our lethality, our sustainability, protection, or survivability, and maintainability," Rugen said.
"This is going to be something that we are open to rotorcraft, not necessary helicopters," Rugen explained. "It'll be vertical-lift rotorcraft, but maybe some things that are different, more compound, advanced designs."
FVL will also be "clean-sheet" designed, Rugen said -- that is, completely new.
"We don't want to take a form factor like Apache or Blackhawk or Chinook and apply something to it," he said. Instead, the Army hopes to "make the next generation of those vehicles."
Rugen said the goal of the CFT is to deliver that new family of aircraft to the Army in record time, on budget, and within the confines of existing acquisition law. Achieving that goal will require a keen understanding of acquisition regulations, direct access to the senior-most decision makers in the Army, and a full understanding of the aircraft and capabilities that peer adversaries could potentially yield.
Time is of the essence, Rugen said, and the FVL CFT must overcome where other acquisition efforts have failed. The standard for delivering an aircraft is 15 years, though certainly some programs have taken longer. He said he's got to beat that -- by a lot.
"There is going to be significant time chopped off what is the standard," he said. "I don't think that they would allow me to do a ten-year program. They just won't. It's not accepted. Ten years? Too long. The chief has challenged us for things in the mid-term. That's certainly our goal. The warfighter cannot wait for the increased reach, protection, lethality that we are going to bring and the resilience we are going to bring in this rapidly changing, very complex world we find ourselves in."
GETTING TO FVL, FAST
The new cross-functional teams are designed to circumvent bureaucracy that has hindered progress in earlier programs. CFTs are plugged in at the very top to the undersecretary of the Army and the vice chief of staff of the Army, and cut across functional communities like acquisition, resourcing, science and technology, and operations.
"We have to crush the bureaucracy," Rugen said. "The threat is going to compel us to succeed, and we have some great strategies on cutting though some of the bureaucracy created by the current acquisition process."
Rugen said he wants to get requirements for FVL hammered out this year, which would be way ahead of schedule. "Requirements generation that typically took two to three years, we're going to take three to four months. That's an example."
Requirements generation may be tough for a program as big as FVL. But what may be tougher is sticking to those requirements, especially if program managers become tempted by new, emerging technologies, where last-minute decisions to include those technologies could mean program delays. There's plenty of examples of that, Rugen said.
"We have learned from our past program failures," he said. "When you think about Comanche, when you think about Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter and Armed Aerial Scout, we're informed by that. We have really stated across the Army aviation community that we are going to pick a requirement and stick with it. There's not going to be requirements drift. We're not going to be adding the latest gizmo or flavor of the month. We have to get an air vehicle out to the field and then spirally develop it afterward."
Contracting is also an area where Rugen said the CFT can shave off time in bringing FVL to the force.
"We're not going to take two years to write a contract," he said. "We're going to use other authorities and things that are 100 percent within the spirit and intent of the laws and policies that are out there, but allow us to go much faster."
Rugen added that the FVL CFT will also "do early and often prototyping," and look at things that are already available that might be easily adapted to the Army's needs.
"We are going to buy, try and decide things that are already on the market," he said. "And in this way I think we are going to use what industry has already produced and done and get it into Soldiers' hands much quicker than what we have done in the past."
Rugen said that FVL CFT members have already been doing maneuverability and agility testing on future vertical lift technology demonstrators out in California.
OPEN ARCHITECTURE AIRCRAFT CAN FLY ITSELF
Rugen said with the FVL family of aircraft, the Army wants a common, open architecture that is resilient against cyber intrusion, but at the same time allows for rapid upgrades when necessary.
"I think there's going to be a lot of commonality in the sub-systems" between aircraft, he said. "So if you think about the processing, the digital cockpit, the weapons, those are all going to be common."
And it goes beyond just the Army, he said. There's joint interest in FVL, and that open architecture will allow other services to benefit from the efficiencies of commonality between their own aircraft, and with aircraft flown by sister services.
"The Air Force part and the Marine Corps part can go on an Army helicopter," Rugen said. "And Army mechanics can fix a Marine Corps variant, potentially. The commonality is a little bit deeper than just the parts. It's also some of the fundamental things we do."
Rugen also said the CFT envisions that FVL might even fly itself, if need be.
"We are going to build these air vehicles so they are optionally manned," Rugen said. "We are going to do that through digital flight controls and fully coupling them, so if we need to be unmanned with the rotorcraft, we can."
Rugen also added that part of the FVL CFT's domain will be advanced unmanned aircraft systems, or AUAS, that can team with FVL and do the "dull" and "dangerous" work, such as conducting long-term persistent surveillance, or operating in a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high yield explosive environment.
"That advanced UAS is going to help us penetrate contested airspace in conjunction and in teaming with our lethal, capable future vertical lift rotorcraft," Rugen said. "That advanced team is going to be kind of an ecosystem that we kind of bring to the fight, that is going to be able to dominate a corridor or a window in a certain time where the enemy brings significant capabilities, so we can flow through as a joint force."
Like most things in the military, discipline is at the root of success, Rugen said. Keeping his team on track, and delivering FVL to the Army on time will require plenty of discipline.
"As a leader, we need to effectively communicate the risk to the force, if we drift, if we become ill-disciplined," Rugen said. "We have some pretty compelling problems out there, with the peer and near-peer threats we see."
Looking at what the Army sees now and what's on the horizon in terms of future combat should be enough to keep everybody on track to deliver a future vertical-lift capability with improved reach, lethality and survivability, Rugen said.
"Our warfighter needs them," Rugen said. "I go back to the degraded and contested environments we talk about, the anti-access/area-denial, the megacities, and these very complex spaces. And I think that's going to be a kind of clarion call to everyone to say, hey, stay focused, because we have to deliver ... we are not going to yield the air domain."
(Editor's note: This is one of six articles covering the Army's six modernization priorities. Those priorities are long-range precision fires, a next-generation combat vehicle, future vertical lift platforms, a mobile and expeditionary Army network, air and missile defense capabilities, and Soldier lethality.)
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