WASHINGTON -- The Army has a long road ahead as it carves a path to buy a new family of helicopters in the 2030s, and much still needs to be decided, including what type of aircraft it wants for the attack mission, according to the Army's Future Vertical Lift program office director.
The service's first set of Future Vertical Lift (FVL) aircraft will be focused on designing and building a medium-lift aircraft, and while the Army originally intended to include the attack mission in what it calls "Capability Set 3," it is taking a step back to debate what it truly needs in an attack helicopter.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, Frank Kendall, in October authorized the Army as the lead in the joint FVL effort to conduct an analysis of alternatives (AOA) and proceed into the materiel solutions analysis phase of the program, and the Army is kicking off that analysis.
The AOA will take the Army and Marine Corps 18 months to complete, Rich Kretzschmar, who leads the Army’s Improved Turbine Engine and Future Vertical Lift program office, said at a Defense One event Tuesday. And it will validate requirements for the service’s utility mission, the Marine Corps attack and utility mission and Special Operations Command’s deep attack and penetration mission.
When the Army decided to first procure a medium-lift variant of FVL, the plan was to develop requirements for both attack and utility, Kretzschmar told a few reporters following the event.
But, he said, "Things have evolved and they’ve looked at a of of combined-arms efforts to see how we are going to fight in the future and now I think they are just debating still on how we intend to go after that particular attack mission."
As the Army deliberates, the AOA will go forward without looking at the attack mission for the Army, Kretzschmar said, but he noted that the Marines Corps was still looking at an attack helicopter within the capability set.
Once the Army figures out what it wants in an attack helicopter, then it will be able to decide where it will fit within the FVL family of aircraft, he added.
Kretzschmar reasoned that the Army’s current attack helicopter, the AH-64 Apache, is a good capability as what he called a heavy-attack platform, but the Apache is also serving in the armed reconnaissance role teamed with Shadow unmanned aircraft systems as a replacement for the now-retired OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter.
"It’s a big recon platform," he said, "and so one of the things that’s being considered is what size aircraft do we want to do? Is it a light attack recon or is it heavy attack?"
The Army could choose to go down the same route as the Marine Corps and procure an attack and utility platform which have a large amount in common, perhaps with a different fuselage but an identical power plant, according to Kretzschmar. Or the service could go to a smaller capability set in order to procure an attack helicopter that is more nimble, cheaper and lighter.
"There will be more coming in the future with that," he said.
Kretzschmar said he expects the AOA to wrap up in the middle of 2018 and will then decide how to proceed in 2019 with a program of record for FVL Capability Set 3.
He added, "we have resourced a specific acquisition strategy but we are looking at tailoring that based on technology maturation and how that lines up with requirements and what our confidence in risk acceptance is in an acquisition strategy going forward."
While there’s been much talk about the possibility of speeding up the FVL program, Kretzschmar said much still lies ahead before a decision could be made to accelerate.
The planned milestone in 2019 to decide whether to move the program into a technology-development phase, could be a logical point to make that decision, he noted.
One scenario is that requirements line up exactly with what is fleshed out through flight demonstrations in the Army’s Joint Multi-Role program that is funding the development, construction and flight testing of two demonstrators: one made by Sikorsky and Boeing and another by Bell Helicopter. The aircraft are expected to fly in the fall of 2017 into 2019.
If all technologies in the JMR demonstration are at relatively mature levels -- a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 6 -- then it’s possible the program could skip the technology-development phase and move directly into the engineering manufacturing and development (EMD) phase. Then the Army would hold a competition and pick one of the demonstrators to enter EMD.
But that is a tall order and historically, with major weapon systems like helicopters, the Pentagon has not made a habit of allowing a program to skip over the technology-development phase.
"The flip side of that is if JMR fell flat on its face," Kretzschmar said, where the technology demonstrated doesn’t line up with requirements. Then the Army would have to spend more time maturing technology, which could make the planned three years for technology maturation extend to potentially five years.
"Those are the two extremes," he said. "I think it’s going to be somewhere in between."
Kretzschmar also said during the panel discussion that if Congress passes a continuing resolution -- which funds the government at 2016 levels -- that extends deeper into 2017, some maneuvering would need to be done in order to keep the FVL program moving forward at the right clip. The FVL program is considered a new start in 2017, which means it won’t have any money applied to it since it was not yet funded in 2016.
"We are working around that," Kretzschmar said, noting that the organizations executing the AOA have institutional funding to get started despite the CR, and "presently we are not slowed down in that effort of the program." But he added that he hopes Congress will pass a budget "sooner than later and let us get moving."
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.