ATLANTA — Army aviation has a weight problem and it's growing, Maj. Gen. William Gayler, the service's new Army Aviation Center of Excellence commander at Fort Rucker, Ala., said Friday at the Aviation Association of America's Mission Solutions Summit.
"We've been growing and gaining weight for all the rights reasons," Gayler said. "every new technology, everything designed to protect a crew or its passengers, but we've given maneuverability at the objective away. We've given away payload, we've given away ammo, we are limiting options to a commander, we are not giving options. We do give options if the weather's right but if the weather's not right, we can't give options," he lamented.
While Gen. David Perkins, the Army's Training and Doctrine Command commander, said Army aviation is the epitome of meeting the service's operating concept, Gayler warned if things don't go a different direction, the aviation branch may not meet the requirements laid out in the concept.
"When you have to manage your payload, fuel, ammo in order to accomplish the mission and you put eight or nine Black Hawks to move a platoon because of a power limitation when it could be done with four, imagine the waste, the risk," he said.
"We are capable of giving commanders options, but we also sometimes give a limitation and we gotta fix that," Gayler added.
The commander noted that the Army is currently only able to fly in 84 percent of the world with the current power generation. In Afghanistan alone, Army aircraft can only fly in about 47 percent of the country.
Also aircraft like UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters have grown over "a ton and a quarter" since inception, he said, adding the UH-60s grow in weight, on average, by 78 pounds per year.
Gayler warned that if nothing is done, by the year 2020, "we will be able to move two people" per helicopter "so it will take 15 to 20 Black Hawks to move a platoon."
The CH-47 Chinook helicopter is expected to stay in service for a total of 100 years — until 2064 — and the lives of AH-64 Apaches and Black Hawks will be similar, Gayler noted.
"I would argue that our current airframes have reached the feasible evolutionary limit to meet the army operating concept," he said. "We can certainly do things to make them go a little faster, make them stay a little longer, but not to the duration, range or times we need to execute the army operating concept."
This is why bringing on the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) engine is so important, Gayler stressed. With ITEP, the Army's aircraft will be able to reach 96 percent of the globe.
The ITEP engine will replace engines in Black Hawks and Apaches initially. A Honeywell-Pratt & Whitney team and General Electric — the two participants in the Army's Affordable Advanced Turbine Engine science and technology effort — both responded to a request for proposals last year.
The Army will work toward a Milestone A technology development decision in the spring. Then the service plans to make an award late this summer to up to two vendors to conduct a preliminary design review. The Army will then choose just one engine design to continue into the Milestone B engineering- and manufacturing-development phase in 2019. Low-rate initial production is expected in 2024, just six years before the start of low-rate production of a family of future helicopters to replace the Army's current fleet.
For Boeing's vice president of attack helicopter programs, Kim Smith, "weight is something you are always working on from day one."
With the AH-64 D-model Apache, "we did a lot of analogue to digital and we did a lot of situational enhancements to the aircraft, but we kept the structure relatively common, that put a little weight on it," Smith said.
With Block III upgrades for Apache, Smith said, the idea is to give pilots back their "sports car."
Pilots "want the speed and the maneuverability to really come back and only get better from what they had with their A-model days," Smith said.
Through using advanced materials, some wiring enhancements where the company removed over a thousand feet of wiring, reducing parts by better-value engineering and "at the same time kicking it up a notch with composite main rotor blades, the enhanced drive system," Smith said, buys back payload space and maneuverability.
Smith added Boeing is looking ahead at what will follow the Echo-model Apache, which will be the bridge to the Army's Future Vertical Lift program, a family of helicopters to come online in the 2030s. "We got some pretty cool concepts that will be a game changer when it comes to drag on the aircraft from the current configuration," she noted, adding, "stay tuned."
And for Boeing's Chinook program, new composite rotorblades and other improvements should give the aircraft 1,500 pounds of additional thrust operating in a hot environments at high altitudes, according to Col. Rob Barrie, the Army's program manager for cargo helicopters.
Because fuel tanks are now self-healing, the Chinook no longer needs six separate tanks and will reduce to two, one on each side of the aircraft, Barrie said. This will reduce the aircraft weight by about 100 pounds.
Other improvements will increase the gross weight of the aircraft from 50,000 pounds up to 54,000 pounds, which buys back more payload or fuel, he added.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.