ATLANTA — The US Army would ideally keep it simple and drop its future helicopter engine right into its first variant of its future vertical lift aircraft, according to the Army program manager in charge of both efforts.

Over the past several years, there's been debate over whether the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) engine would be the right option for whatever aircraft is developed within the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program of record down the road.

But the stars are aligning for ITEP to be the engine of choice for FVL. The timeline the Army plans to follow for both, combined with the fact that the Army is most likely going to choose a medium-lift variant as the first FVL aircraft to be fielded, are setting the stage.

ITEP is being developed to replace engines in UH-60 Black Hawks and AH-64 Apache helicopters.

From a timeline perspective, the Army is intending to go into low-rate initial production on ITEP in the 2024 time frame, Rich Kretzschmar, the program manager for ITEP and FVL, said at the Army Aviation Association of America's Mission Solutions Summit on Saturday.

"When you look at FVL, the capability intended to come online in the late '20s — 2029/2030 — time frame, depending on that capability set that we are going after, I think we would be foolish if we didn't use ITEP if the … requirements for that particular capability set allowed ITEP to be used," he said.

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.

"In that case, I think we would take an acquisition strategy that it would be a drop-in solution for ITEP," Kretzschmar said.

Yet if the Army decides to field a different-sized helicopter first, then the service would take a different approach, asking the prime engine developers to "provide a system-level solution with those ITEP technologies," he added.

But Kretzschmar noted that "there is a lot of anticipated value in approaching the engine and airframe control at the same time."

There are two teams competing to build the ITEP engine: a Honeywell-Pratt & Whitney team and one from General Electric.

The two teams each developed engine concepts in the Army's science and technology effort leading up to the ITEP program of record.

The goal is to design a more powerful and fuel efficient engine as Black Hawks and Apaches continue to gain weight over time as payloads and upgrades are added to the aircraft. Flying in places like Afghanistan has revealed the limitations the Army's helicopters have when it comes to flying at high altitudes in the heat, carrying the ideal payload or being able to fly certain distances.

"This is a big deal for our Army and it's a big deal for the platforms," Brig. Gen. Bob Marion, the Army's aviation program executive officer, said at AAAA on Saturday. He said the service expects to reach a technology-development decision this quarter and is looking to award up to two contracts for a two-year risk reduction and maturation phase.

Part of the request for proposals released last fall requires the teams to submit a plan to go straight from the technology-development phase into engineering and manufacturing development in 2019, according to Marion.

The Army will spend $51 million in 2016 and anticipates a total development cost of $720 million.

Twitter: @JenJudson