WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army aviation’s program office is taking steps in 2019 to improve the fleet, to include moving forward on a major engine replacement effort for UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache helicopters as well as providing some of the fleet with improved visibility for degraded visual environments, according to the service’s program executive officer for aviation.

Both of those efforts have been touted as major priorities for Army aviation but have taken longer to bring online than expected.

The service is headed into a period of aggressive modernization to include a plan to buy two new Future Vertical Lift helicopters in the 2030s, but the Army also has to strike a balance to keep its current fleet capable and ready.

The Army is close to selecting a team to build its new Improved Turbine Engine Program, or ITEP, engine, Brig. Gen. Thomas Todd told Defense News in an interview just before the start of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.

That decision to move into the engineering and manufacturing development phase should come in the first quarter of fiscal 2019, so essentially at any time.

Progress on ITEP has been a long — and often delayed — time coming, as the Army has wrestled with funding and development strategies over several years.

The service awarded contracts to two separate teams to design future engines to replace an enormous portion of the service’s helicopters under the ITEP program. The Advanced Turbine Engine Company — a Honeywell and Pratt & Whitney team — was awarded a $154 million contract, while GE Aviation was awarded a $102 million contract in August 2016.

The two teams were deeply involved over many years in developing concepts at the science and technology level to replace the engines in Black Hawks and Apaches.

Both teams used AUSA as a last public plug to promote their respective engine offerings before the Army makes its decision. The companies even ran banner ads on the sides of escalator rails.

ITEP is critical because it will not only replace engines in the current fleet but is also planned to be the engine of choice for the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft helicopter it plans to develop through a competitive prototyping effort that just kicked off with the release of a solicitation to industry last week.

The service will also outfit 15 Degraded Visual Environment kits onto Black Hawks in 2019. The Army worked with the special operations community to develop and advance a program for improving visibility when operating helicopters, Todd added.

The Army is also working across the entire fleet to bring optionally piloted capability, Todd said.

Boeing and Canada are working together on a program to develop autonomous capabilities for the CH-47 Chinook, and Airbus recently approached the Army with a desire to invest in developing an LUH-72A Lakota that can also be optionally manned.

The Army is interested in an autonomous capability that could help resupply troops deployed on the front lines or in austere environments, but will look at other possibilities through its FVL Cross-Functional Team down the road.

In an effort to update analogue cockpits in L-model Black Hawks, the service has worked to bring a digital cockpit to the Lima models — renaming them UH-60 Victors.

The Victor model first flew in January 2017 and will hit another important milestone in 2019 when it enters limited user testing, Todd said.

Additionally, the latest version of the Apache will have an operational test that will also include tests with the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile, Hellfire’s replacement. The tests are critical to work out kinks found in previous test-firings of the JAGM from the Apache platform.

Chinook Block II will also have major flight tests next year.