On Nov. 13, the Center for Strategic and International Studies released a report titled “Assessing the Affordability of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift Portfolio,” drawing additional attention to one of the U.S. Army’s six main modernization priorities. It also offered an encouraging and compelling data point that could help assuage some concerns about whether the Army can afford key components of its modernization program.
Through the Future Vertical Lift, or FVL, program, the Army seeks over time to procure capabilities across five capability categories that will serve to modernize a rotary-wing fleet that has largely survived on upgrades to platforms that were initially developed in the 1960s and 1970s. The first two FVL procurements are focused on category 1 — future armed reconnaissance aircraft, or FARA — and category 3 — the future long-range assault aircraft, or FLRAA, and their enabling capabilities.
The report’s publication comes at a particularly interesting and important time in the FARA competition as it progresses to its next milestone in early 2020 and the transition from the prototype design phase to the selection of two designs to be built as competitive prototypes. The FARA competition is moving quickly because it seeks to fill a particularly urgent gap in Army capability for a small-form armed scout aircraft that can better cope with the challenges of the modern contested and multidomain operating environment.
The “Army 2019 Modernization Strategy” document focuses on some of these new and still emerging challenges, especially those emanating from Russia, referred to as the Army’s “pacing threat.” According to the 2019 strategy document, Russia seeks “to achieve their aims by using multiple layers of stand-off across all domains — land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace.”
Operating in this environment against increasingly long-range and accurate missiles as well as sophisticated integrated air defense capabilities requires aircraft not only based farther away from the fight, but also capable of covering these longer ranges at much higher speeds than the Army’s fleet of conventional helicopters can. In short, it requires a new capability that incorporates increased speed, maneuverability, enabling technologies (such as novel materials), advanced fly-by-wire controls, and creative designs.
Autonomy is also of interest to FARA, which is envisioned as being optionally manned. The manned aircraft will employ autonomy to relieve pilot cognitive burden and manage unmanned systems, while unmanned versions of FARA can be deployed across a broader set of environments against a broader range of sophisticated air defense capabilities.
The demand for an aircraft with the increased speed, range and lethality to penetrate modern air defenses and survive in a contested cyber and electronic warfare environment is considered so pressing that in April 2019, then-Secretary of the Army Mark Esper described FARA as the Army’s “No. 1 priority.”
Speed has also been a priority for and prominent feature of the FARA procurement process, which, to date, has made use of other transaction authorities and middle-tier acquisition for rapid prototyping and rapid fielding processes. As a result, the Army has been able to establish and deliver on an aggressive timeline for prototyping and development. The selection in April of five companies to develop prototypes was reportedly two months ahead of schedule.
The process has had at least one other salutary benefit. By avoiding being overly prescriptive on design parameters and instead focusing on broad system attributes such as high speed, the Army has a differentiated choice between at least the four competitors that have revealed their designs.
Two designs (Bell and Sikorsky) offer versions of aircraft that have flown, while Karem (partnering with Raytheon and Northrop Grumman) and AVX/L3Harris have displayed new designs. Boeing will reportedly reveal its design closer to the design submission due date in early 2020. Two of these five designs will be selected in March 2020 to move to prototype production with a fly-off in 2023 and an expectation that the Army will begin fielding FARA along an accelerated schedule in 2028.
The main conclusion of the CSIS report that the Army can afford both the FARA and FLRAA programs simultaneously will be welcome news to the Army and its much-needed modernization program. The combination of what the report calls the “lost decade” of modernization and ongoing shifts in the operating environment have catalyzed an urgency to this effort. Vigilance, of course, will be required in validating cost assumptions and managing both operating and sustainment costs as well as programmatic risk over the decades that the platform will be in service, especially in an environment in which the Army is rightfully in a hurry to deploy novel capabilities.
So, too, will be developing and incorporating novel technologies and operational concepts that enable FARA to remain relevant in an operational environment that is unlikely to remain static. Nonetheless, the report’s conclusion is an encouraging sign that the Army can focus — as it should — on acquiring a truly leap-ahead system that does not have to make fundamental compromises between cost and capability, and that will be best suited to meet the challenges of the 2020s and beyond.
Tate Nurkin is the founder of OTH Intelligence Group and a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.