HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The fiscal 2020 budget request is out, showing the U.S. Army is ready to put money where its mouth is when it comes to funding two efforts to build, then buy, new vertical lift aircraft — a Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) and a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) — while simultaneously funding new unmanned aircraft and developing a backbone for mission systems and weapons that will be installed across the future fleet.
But is the Army biting off more than it can chew and can it overcome the struggles to buy new helicopters which have plagued the service in the past?
Defense News sat down with Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, who is in charge of Future Vertical Lift (FVL) modernization in the Army, to discuss how the service plans to make it work.
There’s been some big things happening with the Joint Multi-Role demonstrator. Where are you headed with the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft — FLRAA — into which the JMR program is meant to feed?
I think to start at the beginning with JMR, a lot of data, a lot of studies, a lot of modeling is behind those two tech demonstrators. Obviously, we had two other participants that did other scaled activity. We’ve got a large body of data from JMR and we want to fully leverage it. We are seeing some great flight envelope expansion and that’s also good data, but the mountain of data is really...we’ve gotten a lot of it. And we do want to bridge into a competitive, full and open competition capability.
The Army is committed to capability set 3 (FLRAA) and we’re postured well to leverage the JMR. I think when you look at our current fleet investment, when you look at the risk calculus, I think we’re ready to jump. I know we’re ready to jump to future capability.
You’ve been able to secure funding for both the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft and the FLRAA in the fiscal year 2020 budget request. You’ve also sent a wish list to the Hill that asks for a little bit more funding for FLRAA. How much quicker could you get into a competition with added funding?
The Army is looking at all the opportunities to go quicker. I think the Futures Command mantra and certainly that of the CFTs has been ‘schedule is king’ and so we want to deliver, burn down risk, and deliver capability, advanced capability, faster to the soldiers. We’re looking at each and every opportunity.
We’re seeing a lot of very quick requests for proposal being issued by several of the cross-functional teams for some of their efforts. Do you envision having a fast turn around between an RFI and a potential RFP for FLRAA?
We’re looking at each and every opportunity. This is a program that’s multi-service with an Army lead. We want to make sure that we have our other partners fully along with us. People may get frustrated with a little additional time that we take, but it won’t be a lot of time. We’re going to get everybody on board that wants to be on board, make sure that we understand fully how the joint force wants to exploit the JMR and get after it. But we won’t take a lot of time.
You also have the FARA competition. That is a newer program. How will you get to a prototyping phase or a technology demonstration phase?
What worked with JMR and that four and half years to flight, we’re taking the same team and the same timeline and we’re adding some robustness to it. Instead of a tech demonstrator, the FARA aircraft will be competitive prototypes — so we’ll be competing off of that. And we’ll be prototyping before,where a tech demonstrator would be a lower bar.
That is all baked in with the same team and as far as our leader development and talent management, that’s not a small aspect of our program. We feel we have the talent and the leaders to deliver a better product, quicker. That solicitation went out last year to great fanfare and we appreciate the coverage on that. The offerings are in and we’re in source selection. We should downselect in the coming months and award up to six offers and move forward.
In March of 2020, we currently anticipate that we will down select to two vendors who will be selected for the competitive prototyping phase of the [Other Transaction Authority].
With FLRAA are you looking at an approach where you would also be doing some sort of competitive prototyping?
I think we’re looking at multiple ways. The interesting thing is Congress has given us some great authorities to do rapid acquisition and we are going through those exhaustively to come up with the best cost and schedule we can do, in as rapid a fashion as possible to get after capability developments. I think it’s a bit premature to say what exactly we’re going to do, but that plan is ongoing and it’s deep, deep planning across multiple services and the department as well.
You have two teams working on joint multi-role demonstrators but you also have companies that are working on other aspects of technology development. How might their work feed into a competitive process?
Our modular, open-system architecture — we are getting after a government-defined standard and a government-defined interface for our mission equipment packages, our aircraft systems, to make sure that our systems are rapidly upgradeable and that also we address vendor lock.
Vendor lock sometimes can get expensive. We want to compete things downstream and that’s really what we’re looking at for our open-system architecture approach. With that, we’ll have five demos this year. The biggest is our mission system architecture demo — which is MSAD — and that’ll finish up in December 2020.
We have a large portion of industry participating in that. We’re very pleased with the participation and we think we’re going to have a very competitive environment with which to get after and solve some of these tough problems. … There will be seven demonstrations next year. It’s not something I think we can solve in a minute but we are certainly laser focused on it and I’m pleased with the industry response.
The Army has historically struggled to procure helicopters, with armed reconnaissance being one area where the Army has struggled the most. Now you’re trying to do this with two different aircraft simultaneously. What’s different now that injects more hope into the process?
We’re one of the chief’s priorities. We’re number three. That helps. I think we were at a similar inflection point coming out of Vietnam.
When you look, coming out of Vietnam, we really did two plus aircraft with the Apache and the Black Hawk being part of the Big Five; and certainly the Chinook was getting upgraded.
Really what it’s done though, those good systems coming out of the 1970s, is it’s put us in an incremental upgrade kind of cycle, and we need to break out of that cycle. Across our senior leaders, they see that and they’re driving the CFT hard to break that cycle.
I think with the reorganization you see with Futures Command and the standing up of the FVL CFT, you’re seeing the Army put resources where we need to get after this tough task to do two at a time.
I think the JMR, I keep going back to that, but we’ve got something new flying in four and a half years.
We’ve learned from the [failed] Comanche program, that we have to put it in a competitive environment and we have to prototype early and often. And then we have to pick our requirements and stick to our requirements.
There’s not going to be requirements drift; there’s going to be a lot of prototyping to get after solutions and we feel we have some great knowledge technically. The technical readiness is there to pursue an advanced rotorcraft.
You are focused on a Shadow replacement right now. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re doing with the Future Tactical UAS?
The Future Tactical UAS solicitation went out last year. We were very pleased with the offerings. Again, folks came out and we put it in a buy-try-decide construct. We felt that there was quite a few potential FTUAS capabilities out there that were pretty well flown and ready to go. We had those industry partners come out to Dugway in December and January and do a competitive fly-off.
With that, FTUAS, we wanted to get after improving; not only doing what the Shadow does, but do what the Shadow does better. Do what the Shadow does, but then do it with a lower acoustic signature, do it with runway independence, and do it where we could fly it around on our organic assets. A CH-47 versus a C-130.
This new FTUAS competition in the buy-try-decide construct is going to inform our future requirement for a Shadow replacement.
And what are you going to be doing in terms of testing out these future tactical UAS in the future?
We plan on procuring six platoons worth of systems. Those systems will be put into [Army Forces Command] units in the BCT, so the Brigade Combat Team Shadow platoons. We’re buying them, and then we're going to have those soldiers try them in FY20. We’re going to have a test team and a data collection team follow those platoons. We’re going to see where we need to improve, see if the soldiers love it, see if commanders love it.
Each one of those platoons will fight the system in a combat training center rotation and we’ll get all that data and see how we can proceed.
But in FY21 we would exploit that for further operational shake-outs and further development and put that information back into our requirements.
Will these FTUAS be paired with the Apache in terms of manned-unmanned teaming missions? I know that’s a priority in terms of future capabilities.
They absolutely are and our new term that we’ve graduated to is advanced teaming.
We feel that the Apache is going to have to deal with a heterogeneous formation so not just a future tactical UAS but we’re also bringing on air-launched effects, which are smaller UAVs that we will launched from rotorcraft or ground vehicles.
We’re seeing again, a mismatched formation, that we really want to sharpen up to a razor’s edge to be lethal, survivable and very much optimizing our kill chain for our pacing threats.
Apache, then FARA, they’re going to be the centerpieces of that close-combat coordinator that takes these systems and harmonizes them with Long-Range Precision Fires and the ground force, the Next-Gen Combat Vehicle and the capabilities that they’re bringing, along with intel and the network to really bring Multidomain Operations 1.5 to bear.
What else do you have brewing in your cross-functional team?
We’re going to be demonstrating air-launched effects in May in Yakima.
We’ll have a Black Hawk that’ll launch two UAS from the air. We will control them from the air and from the ground and hand these air-launched effects off.
These UAVs will fly over a robotic breach. So they’ll be breaching a complex obstacle on the ground with robots as well.
It gets into this, ‘let’s put our unmanned systems into the dangerous breaches instead of soldiers if we can do it.’ We’re very pleased with the progress.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.