The Army has condensed its top modernization priorities into a concise list of eight investment areas where it can aim the modest available research and development funding. Topping the list is the ongoing Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program seeking a next-generation helicopter.

“FVL is a critical capability for our Army in the future,” said Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, deputy chief of Training and Doctrine Command and director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC).

A concept image of Bell Helicopter's V-280 Valor tiltrotor aircraft.
A concept image of Bell Helicopter’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor aircraft.

“With FVL, I think we ought to make it a goal to ask how do we get it faster? Can we be more agile? Can we drive cost down? Can we deliver it in a way that’s different from the normal acquisition system and get those capabilities to the force earlier than the planned time horizon?” McMaster said Wednesday at the Association of the U.S. Army’s 2016 Global Force Expo.

The other seven items on the list, which is a checklist for near-term investment in long-term technological superiority, are:

–          Advanced protection;

–          Cross-domain fires;

–          Combat vehicle technologies;

–          Robotics and Autonomy;

–          Expeditionary mission command;

–          Cyber and electromagnetic spectrum dominance; and

–          Soldier/team performance and overmatch.

“These are the things that TRADOC, based on our own gap analysis, see as the capability areas that we need senior Army leaders’ investment in time and resources in order to bring those solutions to the field,” said Maj. Gen. Robert “Bo” Dyess, deputy director of ARCIC.

In most of the so-called “Big 8” the Army has both near-term efforts to fill identified capability gaps and long-term research and development projects that should bear revolutionary technologies in the 2020-2030 timeframe.

“We cannot wait. We need to invest now in extending current overmatch and in new capabilities with which to face near-peer or coalitions of adversaries,” said Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based public policy think tank. “We have to be planning now, not just for current threats, but for, at the very least, deterring the conflicts that we can see on the horizon.”

Investments in vertical lift programs are a typical example of the Army’s two-pronged modernization strategy. The service is focused in the near term on fielding the most advanced capabilities on its existing rotorcraft, an ongoing program to upgrade the Boeing [BA] AH-64 Apache and CH-47 Chinook and Sikorsky [LMT] UH-60 Black Hawk to the most advanced configurations by retrofitting new avionics and sensor technologies.

The base helicopter platforms were designed in the 1960s, manufactured in the 70s and have been upgraded over time. Chinook, Apache and Black Hawk have performed well in combat, and will continue to serve for decades. The Chinook recently was named the Army’s first 100-year aircraft because its projected service life now pushes out beyond 2040.

An intermediate development program is seeking a more powerful, efficient rotorcraft powerplant that can be retrofit onto the Apache and Chinook, then power next-generation helicopters. The improved turbine engine program (ITEP) is funded in the Army’s fiscal 2017 budget request and has been protected from cuts since its inception. The Army wants an engine that is twice as powerful while consuming 25 percent less fuel than current rotorcraft turbine engines. 

Beyond the next 10 years, Army officials want more speed and range than conventional helicopters are capable of while maintaining or improving hover maneuverability. Enter the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD) program.  Using the lessons learned from JMR, the Army plans to launch FVL as a program of record that will replace the service’s entire helicopter fleet with a family of new aircraft.

“It’s very early, so we’re just getting the first physical prototypes out,” McMaster said. “There’s two solutions: tiltrotor and push-rotor.”

The next-generation tiltrotor solution is the V-280 Valor, which development partners Bell Helicopter Textron [TXT] and Lockheed Martin plan to fly in 2017. Sikorsky, now owned by Lockheed Martin, is offering the SB-1 Defiant in partnership with Boeing. That design incorporates dual coaxial rotors and an aft pusher prop to achieve helicopter hover capabilities and fast flight like an airplane. The smaller-scale S-97 Raider has flown twice since its first flight in May.

SB1 Defiant Image: Boeing-Sikorsky
SB1 Defiant
Image: Boeing-Sikorsky

Lockheed Martin has erected a “firewall” between the two development efforts, according to employees close to the program. The company also has taken a relatively hands-off approach to integrating Sikorsky into its larger organization so as not to upset ongoing internal research and development efforts, they said. Sikorsky’s commercial rotorcraft business was in poor shape when Lockheed Martin bought the company, but military technology development, especially the potential business from the Raider and Defiant designs, were a primary driver of the acquisition, one Lockheed Martin official said.

McMaster said industry’s initiative to develop and demonstrate mature vertical lift technologies could result in a model program delivering a revolutionary air-mobility platform at low cost.

“It’s very early, but based on what industry is doing and what we’re helping them do through the joint program, I think that could be a model acquisition program if we do it right, if we keep cost down, if we evaluate those prototypes and that’s something we can roll into the force,” McMaster said.