The Future Vertical Lift Program is already making me cry.

Forbes has a pretty interesting look at one of the few bright spots in the American military aviation industry, helicopters, and sees clouds on the horizon in terms of procurement numbers. It is a pretty interesting article, and you might enjoy it.

But the part that caught my eye was this:

Meantime, the next generation of rotorcraft will take time to develop.  In June, the US Army selected three designs for its Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator program.  JMR-TD is the precursor to the Department of Defense’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, and it should produce three medium size class technology demonstrators to be built by 2017.

There’s a lot of promise with FVL, which, for a start, is intended to replace 2,000-4,000 UH-60 medium lift models and AH-64 attack helicopters.  It will also be used to provide replacements for scout and heavy lift models through a modular design approach that will allow the airframe to be scaled.  In all, it could be worth over $100 billion.  However, FVL procurement will not begin until 2030, at the earliest.

That’s the part that scares me.  Actually, the first paragraph isn’t so bad. A technology demonstrator (TD) program isn’t, per se, bad. In fact, it is probably a pretty good idea. The problem is, a TD in effect becomes a prototype competition (much as happened in the JSF program) and the rules that determine the winner for a TD program are different from the rules that would be used in a genuine prototype fly-off for a production aircraft.

No, what really concerns me is the program looks structured to provide a “one airframe fits all” approach.

Which, it won’t. The reason we have different airframes is simply because one airframe simply cannot adequately perform all the mission sets required.

Now, a good deal of commonality among different airframes isn’t bad. For instance, the cockpit of the Boeing 757 and 767 are virtually identical. If you can fly one, you can pretty much fly the other. And using the same parts gives economies of scale in procurement and maintenance.  The same holds true with most Airbus single aisle airliners.

Should the FVL program lead to new technologies in engine, rotors,avionics,  noise and infrared suppression and other improvements, by all means, those developments should, where feasible, be shared across future programs.

But the bit about scalability is scaring me. I strongly suspect that rather than developing separate airframes with common components, the services will try to develop a common airframe with divergent missions. And that will be doomed to failure.

After all, it isn’t like this hasn’t happened before. The cancelled RAH-66 Comanche was the sole fruit of what was, until then, the most ambitious procurement program the Army ever undertook- the LHX. The Light Helicopter Experimental program was started in the early 1980s to replace the first generation of turbine powered helicopters of the Army. It was intended to replace the UH-1, the AH-1, the OH-6 and the OH-58, and eventually even replace the UH-60 and AH-64 that were just beginning to enter service as the LHX program was begun.

Trying to make one program fulfill several different roles meant a leap in technology was needed. Which meant the program was high risk. And a high risk program means a drawn out development schedule, which means high costs. And high costs per unit demand a more and more capable unit, which drives up the need for a technological leap, which makes a program high risk, which….

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a8/RAH-66_cpcomcut.gif

Eventually, the lift helicopter portions of the program were shed, and the focus was on a light armed scout. And that scout was burdened with ever greater requirements to be far more advanced than any previous helicopter. No doubt, a fair amount of the gold-plating of the program was a result of the contractor coming up with innovative ideas of what they could do- given the time and money to try, of course.

But so much time was spent developing the resulting RAH-66 helicopter that its mission, to slip far behind the lines of any Soviet armored assault on Western Europe, and locate valuable targets for other Army assets, was overtaken by other technologies, not to mention the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.

After a quarter century of development and untold billions of dollars in development, the Army ended up with nothing.

Where the Army (and the other services) have had great success in aviation procurement is in tightly defining a mission and more importantly, tightly defining the requirements to fulfill that mission. When the services have ruthlessly resisted the call to add more capabilities beyond the immediate level needed to accomplish a mission, and have steadfastly avoided mission creep, they’ve had good success in buying aircraft. But without that discipline, they’ve suffered setback after embarrassing setback and ballooning costs and development timelines.

Let’s hope the FVL program manager can read a little history.

2 thoughts on “The Future Vertical Lift Program is already making me cry.”

  1. I saw an RAH66 at the Paris Airshow in, I think, 1999. Had 8 hours on the engine. Pretty ugly. For pure aesthetics, give me a Cobra.
    I had the same reaction you did when I saw the word “scaleable” in the article.

  2. These days, anytime I see “acquisition” or “procurement” in an article about the military, I get scared. None of the services have been able to produce a clean program since Vietnam. Even the best had its scary points. We simply can’t afford to keep doing things the way we have for the last 40 years.

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