Sometime later this year, the U.S. Army will select the first of two new rotorcraft designed to replace much of the joint helicopter fleet.
The initial “down-select” will choose between aircraft offered by Bell/Textron and a Boeing
That effort, by itself, could be the biggest rotorcraft award in a generation, because the Army operates 2,000 Black Hawks and hundreds more are operated by the Air Force, Navy and allies.
The second new rotorcraft the Army is seeking is a smaller armed reconnaissance helicopter to replace the retired OH-58 Kiowa scout; that contract will be awarded next year.
In the context of a $5.8 trillion federal budget, these programs are not big: even if both efforts are successfully executed, at the peak of production towards the end of the decade they will claim only a few hours of federal spending annually (the government currently spends about $15 billion per day).
However, for the domestic rotorcraft industry, Future Vertical Lift, as the overall program is called, is a gamechanger.
The winners will experience a financial windfall not seen since the Vietnam War; the losers will be challenged to stay in business.
So, there has been continuous coverage in the defense trade press of the airframes being offered, meaning the physical structures of the aircraft including the fuselage, wings, tail and other assemblies.
The oft-repeated mantra in media coverage is that the winning airframes will need to fly twice as far and twice as fast as the helicopters they replace, with greatly improved agility and reliability.
However, new airframes are not the end of the story. In fact, they are barely the beginning. Listen to how Boeing, one of the competitors for the Black Hawk successor, describes what the Army is seeking in the way of enhanced capabilities:
- Net-centric interoperability
- On-board sensor fusion for advanced situational awareness
- Enemy fires detection and location
- High resolution all conditions sensor capability
- Unmanned air system control
- Ability to control optionally piloted aircraft
Collectively, these capabilities suggest a huge gain in operational performance, but what’s striking about the list is that none of them really has to do with the airframe; they are features of the on-board electronics architecture which could be just as easily installed on existing airframes as next-gen aircraft.
Most of these capabilities are associated with a “mission equipment package” that the Army has wisely decided to compete separately from the airframe.
If all goes according to plan, the on-board electronics will be provided to the airframe integrators as government-furnished equipment, and be installed on both of the future aircraft.
What that means in practical terms is that no matter how capable the airframes are that Bell/Textron, Boeing and Lockheed/Sikorsky offer, Future Vertical Lift cannot achieve its objectives unless the government-furnished electronic systems measure up to Army expectations.
“Measuring up” in this case will require adherence to several foundational design principles, without which the ability of Future Vertical Lift to keep pace with emerging threats will be uncertain. Here are four of them.
Modular open architectures. Future users must have the flexibility to upgrade or replace the baseline electronic systems with new technology as novel threats arise. That dictates the electronics not be so closely associated with the airframe that modifications are difficult or expensive.
Furthermore, the Army and its sister services cannot tolerate the installation of proprietary technologies that lock them into reliance on particular vendors. The systems must be modular and open to all qualified suppliers to assure that the best solutions are always available for rapid assimilation.
This largely has to do with employing software-defined systems that use a common operating language and shared standards to assure easy upgrades. Program overseer Major General Walter Rugen describes the design philosophy as analogous with an Android smart phone architecture rather than the proprietary Apple
Resilient mesh network. Both the Black Hawk replacement and the new recon rotorcraft will operate in a joint warfighting environment where the ability to share data with off-board systems, both manned and unmanned, is essential. The new aircraft therefore must have advanced communications capabilities capable of exploiting all the connectivity options available across the radio-frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Army planners say the best solution is a mesh network in which all potential players are instantly available through a seamlessly interoperable communications environment. No matter how capable each airframe is, they must be able to tap other sources for situational awareness and target information with the immediacy that only continuous connectivity delivers.
Manned/unmanned teaming. Much of the dangerous work in future airborne operations will be performed by unmanned systems. These systems come in two flavors: attritable, inexpensive vehicles typically carried by the manned airframe that deliver tailored effects like jamming beyond the range of the aircraft, and autonomous drones that will generally be launched from the ground.
Future Vertical Lift must have the ability to operate both types of unmanned systems in order to realize its full warfighting potential. The Army has made good progress on developing both air-launched effects and next-generation tactical drones that will complement the lethality and versatility of the manned aircraft.
Automated diagnostics and decision aids. Although the value of artificial intelligence on the near-term battlefield has been somewhat oversold, the pace of future conflicts will demand automation of many aircraft functions. Pilots will need continuous updates of aircraft status, and their tactical decisions will need to be informed by AI-type support.
The relevance of artificial intelligence and machine learning will likely grow steadily in the future, thus underscoring the importance of open architectures and software-defined systems. Without automation of many on-board activities, users will be hard-pressed to operate successfully in the contested airspace of tomorrow.
The good news is that many of the digital advances being developed for incorporation on Future Vertical Lift aircraft can also be applied to rotorcraft already in the fleet. For instance, the Apache attack helicopter is destined to remain in the active fleet through mid-century; any plan for assuring its continued relevance in combat necessarily must include the use of systems similar to those being developed for Future Vertical Lift.
Several companies offering technology for use on Future Vertical Lift aircraft contribute to my think tank.