ATLANTA — The first Future Vertical Lift aircraft to be fielded by the Army will come in the medium-lift category, where attack and cargo lift helicopters reside, according to Maj. Gen. William Gayler, the new Army Aviation Center of Excellence commander at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
Gayler, who spoke at the Aviation Association of America's Mission Solutions Summit on Friday, said that since Congress required the Army to consider the FVL program as a joint program to include the Marine Corps and the Air Force, the need to be joint is driving the decision on which type of helicopter will be built first. The Army is still leading the effort.
The Army's acquisition approach divides up the type of helicopters to be built as a family of helicopters to replace the service's current fleet into five "capability sets." The first set is the lightest variant while the fifth is the heaviest. Capability set 3 refers to the medium-lift variant.
Because the Marines and Air Force are more interested in a medium-lift, the Army has decided to focus on that weight class for the first helicopters that will be fielded starting in the early 2030s, according to Gayler.
"Since it's a DoD joint program, we think the right answer is to go with [capability set 3] with other services, but we obviously will still be very interested in 1 or 2 as well," Gayler said.
There has been talk about whether the first variant of FVL would be a light reconnaissance-type helicopter in order to fill a gap left open when the Army decided to retire the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters. The service is temporarily filling the gap by teaming AH-64 Apache Attack helicopters with Shadow unmanned aircraft systems.
But Gayler's comments seem to put that debate to rest.
The other hotly debated issue surrounding the program is whether FVL can be fielded earlier than the early 2030s. Given the Army's track record in fielding new helicopters, the 2030s have been said to be optimistic, yet the Army in recent years has said it is considering whether it is possible to field FVL earlier than planned.
Industry teams building Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrators (JMR TD) for an Army flight test in late 2017 have said the Army has asked them for more information on any possibility of sliding the schedule to the left. Bell Helicopter said it is confident it can field its V-280 Valor tiltrotor helicopter in the 2020s. The JMR TD phase will inform the Army's requirements for the FVL program that will come online in 2019.
"Potential exists to accelerate some, but we want to leverage technology demonstrators and leverage some science and technology work that will enable us to do that, but we don't want to do that by flooding a bunch of money before it demonstrates a capability at a milestone that lets us do that," Gayler said. "We are always interested in having a capability quicker, but we have to wait and see where the technology puts it."
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.