These full-bird colonels are amped about vertical lift aircraft

The Army, the Marine Corps, and the Special Operations Command are working together in an ambitious drive to develop leap-ahead capabilities for future vertical lift aircraft that will provide greater range, speed, lethality, and survivability, but also have the maximum degree of commonality in platforms and systems to reduce cost and enhance sustainability.

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A USMC V-22 Osprey lands aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The three colonels managing that complex effort say they believe they can do a better job of maximizing commonality and limiting cost than the tri-service F-35, or Joint Strike Fighter, program that continues to struggle with technology challenges, cost growth, and fractured schedules.

Appearing at a Center for Strategic and International Studies’ forum on future vertical lift (FVL) on Dec. 9, the three officers stated slightly different platform requirements for the future aircraft.

The Army and SOCOM are primarily interested in filling air lift and air assault missions currently performed by the different variants of the H-60 Black Hawks, according to Col. Erskine Bentley, the future vertical lift program manager at Army Training and Doctrine Command, and Army Col. David Phillips, program executive for rotary wing requirements at SOCOM.

Bentley described the Army’s focus as “primarily the utility mission,” which includes aerial medical evacuation and air assault, or “the ability to assault light forces and their equipment.”

SOCOM’s air lift missions tend to be long-range covert insertion and extraction of special operations units.

Marine Col. John Barranco, the rotary requirements branch head, expressed a need for both troop transport and attack capabilities as successors to the Corps’ current UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper helicopters. That did not include replacing the tilt-rotor MV-22 Ospreys, which already has speed and range far greater than those two.

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U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom flies during an exercise. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

But all three emphasized the primary focus of their FVL effort was more speed, range, power, and survivability than the current generation of helicopters. They emphasized that those enhanced capabilities were needed to overcome the emerging anti-access, area-denial defensive capabilities being fielded by “near-peer competitors,” which usually refers to Russia and China.

Bentley said greater “reach, speed, and power” would enable the Army to “conduct strategic deployment” from outside the combat theater, and immediately go into tactical operations on arrival.

Greater speed and reach, combined with additional protective systems, enhances survivability and “coupled with light-weight sensor systems, increases the lethality of Army aviation,” he said.

Barranco, noted that the Marines are fielding the “fifth generation” F-35B strike fighter, while their vertical lift aircraft, with the exception of the Osprey, are little better than the helicopters used in Vietnam. But, due to “the threat picture, the anti-access, area-denial, from a variety of near peer competitors,” he said, “there is a need across the joint force to leverage technology to develop a new, more capable aircraft.”

Phillips said the improved capabilities, and the open architecture systems were essential to “stay ahead of the environment,” which was his term for the threat.

The CSIS moderator, Andrew Hunter, challenged the officers on how they could achieve the high commonality for their different missions in light of the record of the Joint Strike Fighter program, which has been “challenged” and has had “less commonality than expected.”

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The F-35 was developed under a unique joint program office, while the FVL effort is under the established Army program office. (Photo by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen. (Cropped))

All three emphasized the time they have spent on confirming the key common requirements. Bentley said within each of those requirements was “trade space” that would allow each service to take from one capability to enhance another.

Barranco agreed, saying “every requirement is in a range of capabilitie,” so they could trade some speed or range for more troops. The Marine also stressed how they all needed the high commonality to enable them to get what they need within “the fiscally constrained environment,” which he predicted would not change.

In addition to reducing the procurement costs, commonality also would enhance sustainability by allowing common supply of spare parts and even cross-service maintenance, they said.

Although the individual platforms may be different, Barranco cited the example of the Marines’ new H-1s, which have 85 percent commonality in engine and mission systems, despite the significant difference in airframe and missions. 

Commonality also would be easier with open architecture in systems that would make it easier and cheaper to modify some performances, they said.

As the program lead, Bentley said the goal was to develop and test prototype aircraft in the 2020s and begin full rate production in the 2030s, when current vertical lift aircraft were due to retire.