It is rare when technological innovation delivers change that fundamentally reshapes military operations. Helicopters made one of these rare breakthroughs after World War II. The ability to support land operations with vertical lift aircraft fundamentally changed how militaries moved on the battlefield. However, the shape of military operations supported by today’s helicopters reflect their capabilities and limitations in terms of speed, range and lift capacity. The Army’s Future Vertical Lift efforts are designed to reshape military operations by surpassing the limits imposed by today’s systems.
It is less commonly appreciated, however, that future vertical lift, or FVL, aircraft may do just as much to reshape the vertical lift industry as they do military operations. To deliver the capabilities FVL requires affordably — in development, production and sustainment — industry will have to leverage new design and production techniques that deliver critical components with high quality and moderate cost.
Key parts such as rotor blades and rotor heads are big cost drivers. Designing these parts for FVL means redesigning the supply chains and manufacturing processes that produce them. For the smaller companies that make up the lower tiers of the supply chain, this will require them to fundamentally change how their production process works.
We recently completed a study that looked at the implications of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift project for the industrial base. What became clear in this review is that there are both opportunities and risks in making the transition to FVL. Substantial investment is required by both the Army and industry, and not everyone in industry will make it. However, this transition also offers significant opportunities to leverage emerging technologies such as additive manufacturing, robotics, artificial intelligence, digital twins and data analytics to achieve the Army’s objectives.
The Army’s management will be key in ensuring that industry is able to get the most out of new design and production methods, reconfigured supply chains, and a reshaped workforce. The Army’s key tools for managing the transition include its ability to provide an addressable market for the industrial base that attracts the necessary FVL investment, and its ability to align industry incentives with the Army’s core goals.
The addressable market for industry is not just the Army’s future programs, but also the sustainment of legacy platforms. For much of the supply chain, the sustainment market is a huge part of their bottom line. The Army’s total vertical lift-addressable market for industry is roughly $8-10 billion annually over the next decade. Although there are some concerns whether that level of spending is feasible while procuring two vertical lift programs simultaneously, previous research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that future attack reconnaissance aircraft and future long-range assault aircraft can be accommodated at historical Army modernization funding levels.
Of that $8-10 billion annual vertical lift spending, operating and support costs will provide the largest share, while research and development as well as acquisition total a little more than $2 billion annually.
Given the size of the addressable market, the biggest challenges and risks in transitioning to a new vertical lift industrial base are not among the big prime contractors, but among the smaller suppliers in the industrial base who can’t be sure that investing in FVL today will generate the necessary returns tomorrow.
Unlike the bigger prime contractors, these lower-tier suppliers have a much different risk appetite and may struggle with making the upfront investments to build components in new ways. Supporting the supply chain in making this transition is critical to meeting the Army’s cost and schedule objectives, which highlights how important incentives are in the Army’s approach.
The Army’s biggest incentive to industry is to provide predictability by keeping FVL program requirements consistent and clear through the development process so that industry can plan and invest. To date, the Army has done this. It should continue to do so.
Additionally, the Army can incentivize industry to make upfront investments now that deliver cost savings later. Given that sustainment costs account for 68 percent of rotary-wing costs, these investments are critical. Furthermore, it is in the Army’s interest to sustain competition throughout the development process as it moves closer to picking winners. Competition is the strongest incentive for industry.
Finally, the Army should be cognizant that incentives will change as FVL moves from development to production, and its management approach will need to evolve.
The Army has the key ingredients in place for FVL if it successfully guides the industrial base through this transition. While that is a tall order, our analysis of the Army’s FVL plans suggests they begin on solid ground and are well-informed by the technological and affordability realities. One final factor in FVL’s success will be sustaining congressional support by being clear and consistent in communicating and executing the Army’s plans.
Andrew Hunter is the director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as a senior executive in the U.S. Defense Department and as a professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee. Rhys McCormick is a fellow with the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at CSIS.