WASHINGTON — In the next few years, the U.S. Army is making major muscle movements to launch its Future Vertical Lift program in 2019, including flight demonstrations of two helicopter concepts starting this calendar year. At the same time, the Army is also preparing to replace the engines in an enormous portion of the service's helicopters and will award a contract to one of two teams competing to design an Improved Turbine Engine at the end of 2018.
Bob Sheibley is at the helm of both efforts as acting Army project manager for Future Vertical Lift and the Improved Turbine Engine Program. Defense News recently spoke with Sheibley about the two efforts, and where they stand amid turbulent times of defense budget negotiations. Here are some edited excerpts.
There's been a lot of talk about speeding up the FVL program. If FVL is sped up, how might that affect other planned upgrades to older helicopters as the Army looks to free up bandwidth and funding to accelerate?
Certainly there are a lot of decisions to be made on what programs get funded and when. Totally cutting out the older aircraft and maintaining them, we are going to have a near-term issue … but betting on a new aircraft being built much quicker than a lot of history tells us so is also a risk. Everyone thinks they can do stuff quicker and better than they have before, but we don't have a good history of doing that. So there is some realism that needs to play into any decisions not to fund current upgrades [in favor] of future aircraft, but we can't not fund the future aircraft or we are going to have the same discussion in 10-15 years of we still don't have a modernized aircraft and we are continuing to upgrade 40- or 50-year-old airframes.
How might an extended continuing resolution affect Future Vertical Lift?
What we have going on, or trying to get going on, is the analysis of alternatives [AOA]. Since FLV is a new start this year in the budget, we don’t have any money to fund an AOA beyond just pre-analysis work in preparation for an actual AOA. … A continued CR will impact the AOA, which will in turn impact the program because we need to get the AOA completed before we can do that.
I've reported that the Army is not focused on the attack mission for the first variant of FVL – capability set 3 – as originally planned. Where would attack fit and what is the next variant or capability set that the Army will focus on?
The attack mission is not in the current [analysis of alternatives] for the Army. The Marines are proceeding with an attack mission on their part of the AOA, so there is an attack variant from the Marine side of the house. The Army is still looking at what size of attack and where they can get that in capability set 1 and/or capability set 2 platform (lighter, smaller helicopters than set 3). There’s a lot of discussion going on in the capability set 1 realm. Maj. Gen. William Gayler (the commander of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence) has said that is still the Army’s top priority to have a capability set 1 type aircraft. The joint priority is a capability set 3, which is why we proceeded with capability set 3 first.
How is the Army progressing with the ITEP program? Is the service still on track to downselect to one engine design for the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the program in 2018?
We have two contractors proceeding toward a preliminary design in the 2018 time frame. Following that it will be a down-select toward the end of 2018, beginning of 2019.
What is happening right now to gear up to a decision?
There is a series of technical reviews going on, requirements reviews, functional requirements both at the engine level and at the control level, integration efforts with both of the airframe manufacturers Sikorsky and Boeing for the Black Hawk and Apache respectively and a lot of trades and analysis going on from an engineering side. … We are scheduled for a [request for proposals] release decision this summer and then the RFP would come out some time after that for the EMD phase.
Maj. Gen. Erik Peterson, the Army's aviation director at the Pentagon, said ITEP would be in trouble if sequestration continues to be the lay of the land. What would happen to the program under an extended CR and sequestration?
That decision will be made at the Army level. … We have several contingency plans that we are doing on an ongoing basis to help prepare, but until we actually get a decision from the Army on what we will do moving forward it’s all speculation. I think the ITEP program is moving along well, it’s on track, we are making good progress there. Again, we are caught up in the CR issue with that program and that will have major impact to ITEP staying on schedule if a CR continues as well. A lot of decisions right now are being budget-driven. Decisions can change quickly based on the budget and we may in a couple of months be on different schedules based on the budget and where the financial picture falls out.