CORRECTION — Based on information provided by the U.S. Army, the original version of this story had incorrectly named Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army has awarded 10 contracts worth a total of $29.75 million to companies to provide mature technologies in the realm of air-launched effects, or ALE, for future vertical lift aircraft that are expected to come online around 2030, service aviation officials have told Defense News.
Raytheon, Alliant Techsystems Operations of Northridge, California, and Area-I of Marietta, Georgia, were awarded contracts to develop air vehicles.
L3 Technologies, Rockwell Collins and Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation were awarded contracts to provide mission systems.
And Raytheon, Leonardo Electronics US Inc., Technology Service Corporation of Huntsville, Alabama, and Alliant Techsystems Operations LLC of Northridge, California, received contracts to provide ALE payloads.
Through ALE, the Army hopes to provide current and future vertical lift fleets with “the eyes and ears” to penetrate enemy territory while manned aircraft are able to maintain standoff out of range of enemy attack, Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, who is in charge of the Army’s FVL modernization efforts, said in an exclusive interview with Defense News.
“To do that, that has a whole host of capabilities embedded in it, and I would say it’s not just the eyes and ears, but it’s also, what we are finding, is the mouth, so our ability to communicate by bringing mesh network capabilities, by bringing an ability to hear in the electronic spectrum, and, again, the ability to collect in that spectrum so we can find, fix and finish on pacing threats,” he added.
The Army plans to take these already technically mature capabilities through additional technology maturation, Col. Scott Anderson, the unmanned aircraft systems project manager for the Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation, said in the same interview.
“We’re looking for high technology readiness levels, so best of breed,” he said, “that we can buy and then we don’t have to develop, spend a lot of developmental dollars getting ready to get out the door in a prototype.” The air vehicle, payloads and missions systems will all fit into a government-owned architecture by fiscal 2024.
The service will first look at each major component of ALE individually, rather than as a whole system, to assess readiness, Anderson said. That will run through most of 2021.
Then in 2022, the Army will take those capabilities and bring them together into a full system prototype working with Georgia Tech, which is helping the service write the underpinnings of the reference architecture, he added.
In the final phase, the Army will integrate the system onto a platform, first targeting the Gray Eagle and AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. Ultimately the ALE capabilities to come out of the effort will be targeted for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) ecosystem, Anderson said.
The Army is planning to field both FARA and a Future Long-Range Attack Aircraft (FLRAA) in the early 2030s.
“We want to mature the [ALE] ecosystem and then have it ready to hand off to FARA in full bloom,” Rugen added.
The Army has been looking at ALE since roughly late 2017, Rugen said, and has been working to refine the associated capabilities development documents for several years. Army Futures Command Commander Gen. Mike Murray signed an abbreviated capabilities development document in May.
The service has been pleased with what it has seen so far in live prototype experimentation and physics-based modeling within the science and technology community and is prepared to move quickly on the effort, Rugen said.
The Army selected Area-I’s ALTIUS, the Air-Launched, Tube-Integrated Unmanned System, to launch from a rotary-wing test aircraft — a UH-60 Black Hawk — and was able to demonstrate the concept from a high altitude in August 2018.
Then the service demonstrated the concept again during a ground robotic breach exercise at Yakima Air Base in Washington state in 2019 as well as a launch from a Black Hawk flying at a lower altitude — roughly 100 feet or less.
In March, at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, the Army demonstrated multiple ALEs launched from a Black Hawk at very low altitudes to “maintain masking,” Rugen said. “We got our mesh network extended out to about 60 kilometers, so we were pretty happy with, again, the requirements pace and the experimentation pace with that.”
The program will evolve beyond 2024 as the capability will align more closely with fitting into future formations.
The Army could award future contracts to integrate the capability or could establish follow-on Other Transaction Authority contracts — which is the type of contract mechanism used for the 10 awardees that allows the Army to move faster to rapidly prototype. “We have the contractual mechanisms” to be “flexible and responsive,” which is key in a program like ALE, Joe Giunta, executive director of Army Contracting Command at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, said.
Instead of looking for a vendor that could deliver every aspect of a system, “we can harvest from across multiple different vendors, who bring, if you will, the best characteristics,” Patrick Mason, the deputy PEO for Army Aviation, added.
“Then as they merge into our government reference architecture and our open system approach, we are then able to bring those together to create a much more capable product,” he said, that “fits into the longer term on how we can modify that as technology comes along and we can ramp on increases in technologies as we get out into the ’23, ’24 time frame and then further into the future as we look out to FY30 and the fielding of FARA, FLRAA and the full establishment of the FVL ecosystem.”
The Army released a notice to industry Aug. 12 looking for input on technology that could further advance the capability of ALE against sophisticated adversaries with plans to host an industry day in September.
While the service will prototype mature technologies in the near term, Mason said, “when you look at the ’25 and ’26 time frame, there will be better technologies that are developed around the payload side of the house, advancements in air vehicles or advancements in the missions systems.”
The RFI is “looking at the next increment that is out there as we move from now in 2020 to what we would have as a residual capability in ’24 to what we could move to in 2030,” Mason said.
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.