The Future of Army Aviation?

We’ve mentioned the Joint Multi-Role helicopter a couple times in the past, primarily in the sense that we aren’t getting a warm fuzzy feeling. If the program was strictly to develop new technologies that could be used in a series of new designs for separate roles, that would be one thing. But in spite of protestations to the contrary, it’s shaping up more and more that the Technology  Demonstrator (TD) will be leveraged into a one size fits all program that will try to make one helo do more than one job. That’s the same approach that has so badly compromised the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

The program is still moving along, with the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) recently awarding contracts to four companies to move ahead with the demonstrators. One such concept is here:

Now, at first glance, I don’t see anything that is outside the realm of aerodynamic possibility.  But I do note that the design is proffered by AVX Aircraft, a brand new company that hasn’t built anything before. I’m not even sure they really have the physical plant to build a TD. Plus, it’s just ugly.

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I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when the AMRDEC Public Affairs Officer reached out to me (especially during the shutdown. Civilian PAO’s are essential for a non-tactical command?).  The PAO kindly forwarded some public information on the Future Vertical Lift initiative.*

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*to be fair, JMR and FVL are technically two separate programs, but I have a crystal ball that tells me we’re only going to get one airframe out of this.

Links

The worst part about returning from a road trip is the list of chores longer than the trip I just took!

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MoH recipient Dakota Meyer interested in running for Congress.

I think the last MoH in Congress was Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey.

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Our post clear back in July on the Future Vertical Lift program prompted an email from the PAO, with the following press announcement.

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I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether that fully allays the fear of a technology demonstration program being leveraged into a prototyping and procurement program.

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God knows I think the service academies should get out of the NCAA Div I football business, but this is just more #ShutDownKabuki.

Why is the government shuttering events and places NOT funded via appropriated funds?

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I think there is a place for a small corvette or light frigate in our fleet structure. But Lazarus at Information Dissemination is spot on that our Navy can get by without them, but it would be disastrous to build our fleet around them.

He’s on a little weaker ground on the LCS front, where I think we get the worst of both worlds, but then, I don’t think he’s explicitly endorsing LCS. Just noting one of the drivers for increased size.

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Hopefully I can catch up on chores soon, and post some more pics of Sox. What else do you want to talk about?

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….

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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.