Army aviation at ‘a crossroads’ as future requirements take shape


Sikorsky and Boeing have worked together on their offering for the U.S. Army's joint multi-role technology demonstrator called the SB-1 Defiant.Photo by: Photo courtesy of Boeing and Sikorsky

WASHINGTON — Army aviation has found itself at a “crossroads” where the current fleet of CH-47 Chinook, AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk multi-year contracts are “sunsetting” and the Army must decide when and how it takes the leap from the current fleet to a far more advanced rotorcraft, according to Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, who has taken the lead on the service’s Future Vertical Lift modernization effort.

But even before the Army makes the decision in the next couple of years on whether it’s ready to take the plunge and back off its older fleet in favor of a new one, the service has submitted initial requirements for its future family of helicopters and those are awaiting approval by Army senior leadership, Rugen said.

“Now we kind of find ourselves at an inflection point of, ‘well, do we keep incrementally upgrading stuff we originally designed in 1970 or do we go for that clean sheet design?’” Rugen said. “Certainly where we are headed is that clean sheet design.”

The approval of those initial requirements will come even before a prototype effort — the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration (JMR-TD) — wraps up. The effort is supposed to help refine requirements for an FVL program of record.

There are two demonstrators that will fly over the course of the year to educate the Army in terms of what is in the realm of the possible. One aircraft — Bell’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor — is already flying while the Sikorsky-Boeing developed aircraft — the SB-1 Defiant coaxial helicopter — is delayed by roughly a year and won’t fly until after this summer, but, as the team has promised, before the end of the calendar year.

Bell Helicopter’s V-280 Valor tilt-rotor aircraft should be a welcome addition to units conducting fast rope insertions, rappelling, or any other air assault operation.Photo by: Bell

With some major requirements encompassing the airframe, its mission systems architecture and even future unmanned aircraft systems close to approval, the Army is making progress despite the fiscal 2019 budget request indicating some early schedule slippage.
The Army’s ultimate goal is to initially field a new aircraft in the early 2030s although there is a push to make that happen sooner.
When asked about the apparent delay in the process, Rugen said, “I don’t see it that way,” noting the funding profile remained consistent across the five-year budget plan.
“There were a few very small moves, but that was just housekeeping,” he added. “As far as the Army is concerned we are on the original schedule. We are on schedule.”
Rugen is in charge of a cross-functional team formed specifically to focus on vertical lift modernization, the third most important modernization priority of six the service has laid out. Each priority is now managed under a CFT, which will be house as part of the Army Futures Command that will stand up this summer.
The CFT has already put a great amount of thought into what a future fleet will look like, how it will operate and how it will contribute to multidomain battle, a guiding concept recently formalized within the service.