NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Even as sequestration budget cuts loom over US Army aviation, helicopter modernization plans are driving numerous requirements, officials said at an industry conference here.

Army officials portrayed Army aviation as active around the globe, with a need to be ready for anything. Behind the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP), the greatest emphasis is on technology to see and fly through dust, fog and other obscurants, known as degraded visual environment-mitigation (DVE-M).

"If we are going to maintain overmatch and truly be game-changing, we have to fly and fight no matter what the weather, no matter what the visual conditions are," said Maj. Gen. Michael Lundy, commander of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence. Lundy and others spoke at the Army Aviation Association of America summit here on Monday.

Funded by a raft of research and development dollars, the plan is to accelerate DVE-M efforts and potentially collaborate with ground vehicle developers. "The same stuff we put on our aircraft we have to have on our tanks and our vehicles because they've got to be able to fight in that same degraded visual environment," Lundy said.

"That's disruptive technology that we've got right now, that's maturing, and now's the right time to go after that," Lundy said.

The DVE-M program fuses images of multiple sensor technologies such as radar, infrared, and laser detection and ranging, also known as ladar, used with advanced flight controls and visual cueing and symbology. The program is led by the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.

An analysis of alternatives is underway. Army officials have said that millimeter wave radar has the greatest obscurant penetration capability in most DVE conditions, but lower visual resolution than either infrared or ladar. How the Army would mitigate the weight of multiple sensor technologies is an open question.

Telephonics, an aerospace and defense firm that specializes in maritime surveillance radars, says it has a solution: a millimeter wave radar sensor that provides a constant, real-time image of the aircraft's forward viewing area via a 3D visual display.

Sierra Nevada, which has already sold a number of its helicopter autonomous landing systems to the Army, also makes a 3D image-rendering radar that uses a 94 gigahertz frequency.

BAE offers Brownout Landing Aid System Technology (BLAST), which also uses a 94 gigahertz millimeter-wave radar to overlay images on existing terrain data in a cockpit display — helmet-mounted or otherwise.

The conversation comes in a year that Army aviation has operated in 36 countries across a variety of missions, including in Pacific exercises, the anti-Ebola mission in Africa, along with operations in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the Army presses its aviation restructure plan, officials hammered the message that the plan, which avoids $12 billion in costs, is vital for preserving readiness and modernization funds. In particular, the UH-60 Black Hawk would not be upgraded until 2028 without it, according to Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allyn.

Calling sequestration "the greatest threat to the Army's dominance in the future," Allyn asked senior leaders to inform appointed and elected leaders about its impact. "We cannot absorb the ax wounds of additional sequestration's blind, budget-driven cuts," he said.

Without the aviation restructuring, ARI, sequestration would impact a number of plans underway, according to Lundy said: ongoing purchase AH-64E Apaches, the Chinook Block II program and an avionics upgrade for the UH-60L to UH-60V.

The restructure calls for the service to divest its fleet of OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters and use the AH-64 Apache to fill the Kiowa's reconnaissance and scout role. It would pull Apaches from the National Guard inventory to fill the gap, and, in turn, provide the Guard with UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. The Army would also cut three of its 13 combat aviation brigades, while the Guard would retain all 10 of its brigades.

Heidi Shyu, the Army's head of acquisition, favors the restructuring ARI as a means of cutting costs as part of a modernization strategy.

"We've got to divest aging systems out of our portfolio, the stuff that we can no longer afford to maintain because it's really not being used," she said. "It's like cleaning out your garage."

With an eye toward the shrinking Army and simplified training, Lundy listed future requirements to include simpler communications and avionics, unmanned systems that require less manning, a common cockpit between multiple airframes, as well as a means to reduce the maintenance burden on aircraft.

"Every time we put a piece of equipment and it takes specialization, that's not a good piece of equipment," he said. "Not everything needs to be world-class … We're looking very hard at our requirements."

Army networks have "grown apart from Army aviation," Lundy said, and to fix it, the service is pursuing the Soldier Radio Waveform "to rejoin the air-ground team."

Anticipating future operations in the "tight urban canyons" of mega-cities, Lundy said, the Army will need the superior power promised by ITEP and the Army's forward-leaning Future Vertical Lift program.

For aviation modernization, ITEP is the No. 1 number one priority, according to Lundy and Shyu, as means of extending the range, speed and power of its Black Hawk and Apache helicopters. The program is heading for preliminary design requests in May as it aims for a 2023 production goal.

After the May requests, contracts are expected to be awarded to the two competitors in March 2016, a request for proposals issued for the engineering and manufacturing design phase in early 2017, and a downselect to one of two competitors in 2018 before beginning low-rate production.

Advanced Turbine Engine Co. (ATEC), a 50-50 joint venture of Pratt & Whitney and Honeywell, is competing with GE Aviation to develop a drop-in replacement for the legacy GE T700 engines that power the Boeing AH-64 Apache and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk fleets.

The engine is also expected to power light rotary-winged aircraft expected to emerge from the service's nascent Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program. However, Lundy on Monday said the FVL effort is not expected to field a helicopter, and the Army cannot wait.

The service has set target goals of 50 percent more power and 25 percent better fuel efficiency to improve capability, particularly in "high and hot" environments, such as Iraq or Afghanistan. ITEP would be a 3,000-horsepower engine and the T700 is a 2,000-horsepower engine.


Twitter: @reporterjoe

Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.