The Army wants industry to start focusing on future heavy vertical lift solutions as potential replacements for the CH-47 Chinook, Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday, as the service continues to push industry partners to focus away from legacy systems towards platforms geared towards a future fight.

Esper told reporters following a discussing at the Brookings Institution there isn’t a formal future heavy vertical lift development yet, while adding it’s one of several areas where the Army is committed to exploring a future platform rather than continuing to upgrade systems not suited for future conflict with competitors such as China or Russia.

A CH-47F Chinook helicopter with 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade maneuvers to pick up an M119A3 howitzer during sling load operations on Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

“Whether we help fund that at some point, I don’t know. I’m not going to talk about that right now. Really, where I need [industry’s] heads to be is thinking about future heavy vertical lift not how do we maintain what we have now and make upgrades here or there,” Esper said. “I really want to think aggressively, boldly about what the future may hold.”

The Army’s FY ’20 budget request included cuts or reductions to 186 programs, including Boeing’s [BA] CH-47 Chinook, in order to find $33 billion to shift towards fully funding development of future weapon systems over the next five years.

Lawmakers have already pressed senior Army leadership on plans in the FY20 budget to reduce the current CH-47 buy in order to ensure funds are available for Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programs, such as the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) (Defense Daily, March 13).

“What I’m asking industry is to think about future heavy vertical lift. We’re not there yet, obviously we need to FARA and FLRAA moving,” Esper told reporters. “I need aircraft in the future that can do the heavy vertical lift movement, that can fight and fly and survive in a very contested airspace and keep up with the FARAs and FLRAAs.”

Esper said FARA and FLRAA remain his first and second priorities for Future Vertical Lift, respectively, while noting that a future heavy vertical lift platform would fall third on his list.

Across the portfolio, the Army is looking for aircraft that provide greater range, speed and survivability, according to Esper.

The Army’s push to lawmakers and industry is focused on moving away from unnecessary upgrades and towards “meeting [the Army] in the future” rather than holding onto systems of the past, Esper said during his remarks.

“Canceling a program is often harder than starting a new one. Understandably, many member of Congress focus on the local impacts to their districts. Defense companies that are affected start to push back. Some expect their programs to go on forever,” Esper said. “What is often ignored is the $30 billion in new opportunities that will be available over the next few years.”

Esper added the push for new platforms extends beyond aircraft and into its future vehicle fleet as well, as the path to push for continuous upgrades to legacy systems starts to present challenges for the Army.

“The Bradley in many ways has run out of upgrades. Electrical power, automotive power, things like that that we put on it just aren’t there anymore,” Esper said. “Active protection systems will be the key to the future, because we just can’t keep putting armor on top of armor making these vehicles more and more heavy.”

While the Army is set on building out its portfolio next-generation platforms, Esper told reporters that officials have yet to determine final fleet numbers for systems such as Oshkosh’s [OSK] Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) and the Chinook that will be required to meet its reorganization around a new Multi-Domain Operations concept.

“My crystal ball doesn’t look out 20 or 30 years. I can look out five years right now, but even five years will be shaped by whatever our wargaming tells us the future Army will look like,” Esper told reporters. “Folks who say they can tell you today, exactly, that we will be build 49,000 JLTVs by the 2030s, I don’t think we can say that on anything right now. Not just JLTVs, I can’t tell you how many next-generation squad weapons I’ll buy. I can’t tell you how many FARA’s I will buy or FLRAA’s. It will be a lot, but I just can’t give you that certain number until we figure out how we’re going to organize for the fight.”