WASHINGTON — On a tight timeline but with additional funding, the U.S. Army is attempting to field a new long-range assault aircraft by 2030.
Congress has added $76 million in funding to the aircraft program’s top line in fiscal 2020 to drive down technical risk and speed up delivery. The money, which Congress approved as part of its FY20 appropriations bill signed into law last month, will fund what the service is calling a “competitive demonstration and risk reduction” effort ahead of the start of its Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft, or FLRAA, program of record.
The Army completed its Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration, or JMR TD, for which Bell and a Sikorsky-Boeing team each built aircraft to help the service understand what is possible for a future aircraft — mainly to replace the UH-60 Black Hawk.
Bell has flown its V-280 Valor tilt-rotor demonstrator for two years and has logged more than 160 hours of flight time on the experimental aircraft. In December 2019, the company demonstrated the aircraft’s ability to fly autonomously through a preprogrammed flight regime.
Sikorsky and Boeing’s SB-1 Defiant coaxial demonstrator had a more difficult time getting off the ground due to issues in manufacturing its rotor blades. Its first flight was in March 2019.
While the Valor has flown for two years, the Defiant started flying in March 2019. Still, the Army has determined it has enough data to move forward on its FLRAA program rather than extend the JMR TD to wait for the Sikorsky-Boeing team to log flight time.
Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, who is in charge of the service’s future vertical lift modernization efforts, said last spring that because of the data collected through the JMR TD process as a well as additional studies and modeling, the service now thinks it has enough information to move more quickly into a full and open competition for FLRAA.
Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, the military deputy to the acquisition chief, said in a Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee hearing around the same time that the Army is presenting an acquisition strategy to the Pentagon’s acquisition chief focusing on a nondevelopmental item approach to procuring FLRAA. That route, Ostrowski said, could lead to a competitive downselect by FY22.
At a company demonstration of the V-280 in Arlington, Texas, last week, Maj. Gen. Thomas Todd, the program executive officer for Army aviation, told reporters that the Army wasn’t planning on waiting for every competitor to reach the same place, which is a problem the service has had in the past. There will “always be a disparity between where particular vendors are, but that does not mean they’re not ready to compete,” he said.
The only advantage a vendor might have in meeting timelines is that it is able to burn down risk in technology development, Todd noted.
Todd said the extra funding provided by Congress will give the service the ability to continue to fly and burn down that inherent risk in developing a new helicopter.
“What [that] may do as we hit those gates, is allow us to take what was going to be a primary budget, really a starting budget for the Army in ‘23 and ‘24, and potentially move that selection back to ‘23,” he said. “We are not going to go to selection if, number one, we don’t have requirements stable, we don’t have resources stable, and, number two, the technology is not there.”
The Army already has had a robust technology demonstrator program, including an extension, Rugen told reporters last week, but that type of effort doesn’t garner the same data as a prototype demonstration or a full-up weapon system.
“In the CDRR [competitive demonstration and risk reduction], we’re really trying to develop a weapons system, not the tech demonstrator,” Rugen said. “So we’re trying to take it to the next level.”
The Army anticipates awarding an other transaction authority contract to begin the CDRR effort in March. An OTA is a type of contract that enables rapid prototyping. The CDRR will consist of two phases that last approximately one year each.
The CDRR will assess a laundry list of technologies identified through an Office of the Secretary of Defense-conducted independent technology readiness assessment, which would require additional evaluation to reduce risk, according to Rugen.
Some of these technologies include the powertrain, drivetrain and control laws of the aircraft. “When we look at the software involved in flight controls, we have to really reduce risk there,” Rugen noted.
The CDRR will also allow the Army to work on the integration of its mission systems.
While the Army received a plus-up in funding for its FLRAA program, it received a decrement in the FY20 appropriations package for its other future helicopter program to build the future attack reconnaissance aircraft, or FARA.
Rugen didn’t know why Congress cut $34 million from the FARA program, but noted the cut would affect the Army’s ability to provide some government-furnished equipment to competitors that will be chosen to build and fly prototype aircraft as part of the effort. The Army plans to provide the service’s new Improved Turbine Engine Program engine, a 20mm gun, an integrated munitions launcher and its modular open-systems architecture to the competitive prototyping effort.
“The cut that we received,” Rugen said, “will be blended throughout those GFE [government-furnished equipment] items ... and we’re finding creative ways to just absorb the cuts, but what we will not do is we will not impact the schedule on FARA [competitive prototyping].
“We want the GFE to be as robust as it possibly can be, but we’re going to have to pull back a bit on that.”
Rugen said he couldn’t be more specific about where the Army might pull back, as it is still working through options.
The service will choose two teams to build prototypes for the FARA competitive prototype this spring and will also have a better sense of funding needed for the program at that time. Each competitor’s submission has a "different level of funding” that would be needed, Rugen said. “So depending on who gets downselected this quarter, we will kind of shape that.”
But, he noted, the Army won’t be choosing competitors based on required funding needed for the prototyping effort. “We’re going to take the folks that have the best offering — we’re going to run with them,” Rugen said.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.