When the Army buys new gear for its helicopters, the acquisition community and industry view it as adding capability to an existing platform, but actually integrating new sensors and weapons often grounds fleets that are in high operational demand.
Without government-defined standard architectures, emerging technologies often require extensive rewiring to mount on legacy aircraft, said Maj. Gen. William Gayler, commander of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence (AACE).
With an Army aviation branch that is 88 percent committed to ongoing operations, adding new capabilities that require extensive labor – and thus downtime – can deprive combatant commanders of the vertical-lift capacity they need, Gayler said.
“Every time a company has a new technology, 99 percent of the time it comes with a new A-kit requirement that we have to put on an aircraft that brings battalions and forces command to their knees,” Gayler said at an Army Aviation forum hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army at its headquarters outside Washington, D.C. “We’re 88 percent committed. We’re having to take aircraft away from FORSCOM to bring down to put a new A-kit thing on it so that it can take a sensor.”
“It’s not really fielding capability,” he added. “You’re depriving capability to a combatant commander.”
The most invasive and time-consuming work is mounting a new A-kit – the physical interface into which a payload or sensor plugs. If that interface could be defined by the government and prescribed to industry, then new sensors, processors and other systems could be easily and rapidly deployed, Gayler said.
“One of the ways we need to become more agile or efficient is how we view the government’s role in future systems,” he said. “I would contend that government has to have more ownership in things like the system architecture of any platform we put out there.”
Included in that set of standards – along with physical specifications for A-kit hardware – would be prescriptions for bandwidth, processing speed, computing capacity and other software-defined “backbone” components of the payloads that an aircraft carries.
“The hardest to actually solve is what is the bandwidth and capacity of the backbone of the A-kit because that is the element that causes the greatest maintenance downtime and loss of training time – to kit out an airframe with wiring,” Gayler said. “Ideally, you would only need to upgrade a processor, which is pretty easy to upgrade, pretty low touch time so you don’t have to bring airframes in for major maintenance. You would only potentially change a sensor that is a couple of screws and a wire connector.”
Gayler said it would be a victory for Army aviation if standards were set that allowed rapid capability upgrades but required physical rewiring or reconfiguration of the aircraft every five or 10 years. He gave the example of emerging active protection systems (APS) technologies that protect aircraft from guided missiles.
Rather than setting requirements for the capability of the APS system itself, the Army should define the standards for the backbone of the system and then let industry competition drive the technology, he said.
“Now it’s an open competition for who has the best sensor,” he said. “Now it’s an open competition for who has the best processor or whatever. That gives us the ability to rapidly change just through software cards and now I can account for something new without having to put new hardware on an aircraft.”