The Army-led Future Vertical Lift program is being developed to replace the service’s aging helicopter fleet, and the aircraft of other services, at some point in the future.
The need for Future Vertical Lift, known as FVL, was explained by Dan Bailey, program director, Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator/FVL, U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, Redstone Arsenal, Ala.
Bailey, who spoke at a JMR-TD/FVL panel at the Center for Strategic & International Studies here today, said there’s are significant limitations on the current fleet, and that over time, those gaps will escalate, resulting in potential adversary overmatch.
The panel included representatives from each of the four vendors touting their versions of FVL: AVX Aircraft Company, Bell Helicopter, Sikorsky-Boeing Team, and Karem Aircraft.
Potential adversaries are also working on their own versions of FVL, Bailey said, adding to the urgency.
For decades, the U.S. has added incremental upgrades to its aging fleet of helicopters and that approach is getting expensive and is at its limits to what can be added to those legacy platforms such as the Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, he said.
“We’ve never had the opportunity to start over fresh across DOD to bring a new fleet to bear that takes innovation into account,” Bailey said, adding that the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator, or JMR-TD, gives DOD and defense industries the chance to do that and to dig deep into their science and technology efforts.
While the goal of JMR-TD is eventual production of FVLs, the knowledge gleaned from these science and technology efforts is probably just as useful, because without the 50/50 cost sharing between DOD and the vendors, the tools and competencies that go into making this happen would be moribund. In other words, there would be no incentive for industry to pursue it, Bailey explained.
A couple of the requirements are that the FVL be able to self-deploy on one of the longest known routes, between California and Hawaii, a distance of about 2,100 nautical miles. Self-deploy means not having to be loaded on a C-5 Galaxy or other type of aircraft or via ship.
This would be an exciting development for the Army’s pivot to the Pacific, said Robert Hastings Jr., senior vice president and chief of staff, Bell Helicopter.
Shipping a brigade of helicopters via boat or cargo aircraft to remote areas might take weeks, he said, but self-deploying enough FVLs to support a brigade would only take a few days.
Another requirement is that the FVL be able to be operated autonomously like an unmanned system, and be operated semi-autonomously.
All of the vendors’ representatives said their FVL variants will be able to fly much faster, farther and carry more payload than today’s helicopters, while retaining the benefits of helicopters’ ability to hover and maneuver.
FVL status today
FVL can’t yet fly today – although it can on computer – but it’s getting there.
Pre-prototypes, known as demonstrators, are now being built by each of the four vendors. This would be analogous to a concept car in the automotive industry.
Each of the demonstrators has existing capabilities as well as experimental capabilities built into them, and each is being constructed in such a way that future technologies will be able to be incorporated into them, Bailey said. These are technologies that don’t yet exist.
“All vendors have relevant designs and they’re all working hard toward eventual flight test,” he said. “We’re at the critical point in our schedule where we’d love to take all four to flight test, but the financial situation will not allow us to do that, so we’ll need to make a de-scope decision within the next 30 days or so.”
Full-scope would mean all four vendors flight testing and de-scope means that won’t happen.
“We’ll de-scope to something less than all four for full flight test, but that should not represent that any of the four vendors have an un-viable design, configuration or opportunity for the future,” he noted.
The timeline, he said, is as follows: the materiel development decision will be made in late 2016, an analysis of alternative designs in 2017, and flight testing in late 2017.
This is where it gets interesting.
If, say, two of the vendors don’t go on to flight testing, that doesn’t mean they’re losers, in the normal sense of a Federal Acquisition Regulation-type contract where there’s a down-select, effectively outing the vendor(s) who don’t make the cut.
JMR-TD was designed under a Technology Investment Agreements contract, negotiated to run through 2019, so the vendors who won’t go on to flight test – in the decision that will be made in about a month – will continue to develop their FVL variant and could still have a chance for final selection.
The services will harvest the science and technology research from all four vendors from now until 2019, and after that time, there will be a competitive acquisition process for the new FVL, he said.
Technology Investment Agreements fall under Part 37 of DOD Grants and Agreements Regulations, and are designed to reduce barriers to commercial firms’ participation in defense research, and to give DOD access to the broadest possible technology and industrial base research. Technology Investment Agreements also serve to promote new relationships of technology companies and individuals in the defense and commercial sectors.
Five top-level criteria are being used in evaluating the work performed by the vendors, Bailey said: science and technology gains for defense; how close and efficient their designs meet the model performance specification requirements; how well does their demonstrator aircraft validate the enabling technologies of that specification; have they executed on schedule and on time so there’s confidence in their management going forward; and can they demonstrate the capabilities, skills and competencies to execute the demonstration.
The key to this stage in the science and technology efforts is to ensure our tools and competencies are ready for the program of record. There’s a certain advantage to FVL not being a program of record yet, he added.
“What we can forgo is that ‘requirements creep’ that occurs typically after a program of record is started,” he pointed out. “We’ve got the opportunity upfront to set the stage, get the competencies and tools correct so we go into the program of record with our eyes fully opened, knowing exactly what we’re going to have coming out of that. We don’t have to change it mid-stream.”
Patrick Donnelly, director, JMR Program for the Sikorsky-Boeing Team, said he could speak for the four vendors that “we’re all investing over half of the [science and technology] costs required because industry has committed the resources to fly this aircraft. We’re all confident we can fly this plane with resources available.”
Hastings noted that FVL is important from the standpoints of keeping the industrial base viable for the military and from a national security perspective.
“It’s absolutely essential we stay on track and fund these,” Hastings said.
Ben Tigner, JMR program manager and director for Advanced Systems Programs, Karem Aircraft, warned that “other countries are moving aggressively forward on vertical lift. It’s been a long time since the rotorcraft industry has been challenged to produce” a next-generation aircraft.
“We’ve done incremental improvements for a long time and slowly lost our ability to generate revolutionary steps in favor of evolutionary steps,” he added.
Vertical lift from the time of its inception in Korea in the early 1950s, has changed the way that war is fought, said Bailey. That will continue to happen in the future and he said it must happen.
As more and more people flock to urban areas, he said vertical lift capability will be “absolutely essential. If we don’t take a leap ahead in our vertical lift, then we’ll be behind our adversaries.”