Technology and the modern world have given rise to great-power competition, forcing America’s strongest ground combat force to confront a difficult truth: modernize now or risk losing tactical superiority. This reality has the U.S. Army staring down an accelerated deadline to completely modernize its capabilities by 2028.
Failing to meet this deadline will put America’s national security at risk.
“Great power competitions require us to modernize the Army. We must modernize the Army,” then Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James C. McConville emphatically addressed attendees earlier this year at the 2019 Army Aviation Association of America (AAAA) Summit in Nashville, Tennessee.
A key priority of this new strategy is the Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, intended to revolutionize aerial battlefield mobility with next-generation aircraft that can dominate all domains. Headed by the Army Futures Command (AFC), FVL will eventually replace the Army’s aging fleet of helicopters with a new future long-range assault aircraft (FLRAA) and new future attack and reconnaissance aircraft (FARA).
“We're trying to show that we have standoff, we're trying to show we have overmatch, and we're trying to show we have the agility that the ground force has always relied on when it comes to Army aviation,” AFC Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen said at September’s AUSA Army Aviation Hot Topic Symposium.
But producing a dominant aircraft is not the only objective of the FVL program. The next-generation vehicle must be also affordable, sustainable and maintainable. According to the National Defense Strategic Plan, which informs the Army’s FVL efforts, “The department will aggressively pursue the most capable aircraft at the best value by minimizing development, acquisition, and life-cycle costs through joint solutions of common core technologies, architectures, and training, emphasizing the ability to conduct safe, reliable and continuous operations worldwide in all environmental conditions.”
FVL is currently underway and moving the FLRAA initiative from the technology demonstrator (JMR TD) phase to actual development of the weapon system. Some are skeptical the Army can get it done, considering its procurement history. However, the Army has spent the better part of the last decade working in entirely new ways with industry leaders, like Bell, to develop these next-generation air vehicles, and the process has shattered expectations.
“There is absolute commitment that these programs or soon-to-be programs, will have all the resources they're required to deliver, which has not always been the case in the past,” AFC Gen. John M. Murray said at the 2019 Defense News Conference in Pentagon City, Virginia, earlier this year.
“We've been able to reduce risk and inform requirements,” Bell Vice President of Advanced Vertical Lift Systems Keith Flail said. “It's a very good story to the Pentagon and to the hill when Congress looks at this, in terms of when they scrutinize the program.”
Flail drove home his point by citing the success of JMR TD over the past seven years as a clear indicator that Bell and the Army can deliver FLRAA on time and at a reasonable cost.
Bell’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor is a strong contender for the FLRAA program and, according to Bell, it’s ready to be developed and deployed now. Still, some are not convinced the V-280 can be built at an affordable cost, even though all indicators say otherwise.
“We focused a lot of the technologies on the V-280 on saving costs,” Bell V-280 Program Manager Ryan Ehinger said. “We've developed new simplified designs and new manufacturing processes that help us achieve that for the air vehicle. And then we incorporate things like the digital thread, which helps us save costs on the non-recurring engineering side, and we can take that and carry it into the sustainment piece as well.”
The V-280 is a product of an entirely new way in which Bell designs, builds, tests and sustains aircraft. By focusing holistically on the tools, processes and its workforce, Bell has revolutionized the manufacturing process. From the design outset, Bell utilized a companywide digital thread that allows engineers to access augmented reality and 3D models through all phases of the aircraft’s lifecycle.
This fundamental and cultural shift in development has allowed Bell to cut costs and build with digital precision. The design itself also contributes to its maintainability. For example, its fixed-engine configuration gives engineers the ability to remove a drive shaft, an engine or gearbox independent of each other, not only reducing the time needed for maintenance but increasing the aircraft’s availability to the operator. Other features like the straight wing design, which eliminates the need for a mid-wing gearbox, reduce the need for parts by up to 90 percent, ultimately lowering maintenance time and costs.
Bell engineers have also applied lessons learned from more than six decades of tiltrotor expertise to create an aircraft that’s not only superior on the battlefield but cost-effective in its design and production. The aircraft’s unmatched performance also contributes to a reduction in costs. With twice the range of any other helicopter, it has greater access to get to the objective, radically improving its productivity. The result is an aircraft that can bring support to more people with fewer aircraft at less cost per mile.
Success in future conflict will rely upon how fast the Army can incorporate new technologies into its current systems. The V-280 is built with this concern in mind. In fact, its modular open systems approach enables the aircraft to incorporate systems updates and introduce new mission packages at a much faster rate and at much lower costs than ever before. Its architectural backbone essentially can plug into upgrades when needed, giving the Army a considerable edge over its enemies, especially as new technologies emerge.
“It's time for that next generational opportunity to take hold, and what we've been able to do
as a team is prove that we're ready to do it,” Flail said. “We can deliver an affordable and sustainable platform to our warfighters now. It's time to get on with it.”
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