The Black Hawk helicopter is a symbol of America at war: a name and image that instantly brings to mind the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu immortalized in Black Hawk Down and the Abbottabad raid that ended the bin Laden manhunt. But the Army is making long-term plans to replace its iconic helicopter fleet with new rotorcraft — some of which, in fact, may not even be considered helicopters at all. This upcoming program is called (with the customary, unironic Pentagon panache) Future Vertical Lift.
This is a big move, not just for the Army, but for the Pentagon, who haven't always been that successful with recent dives into the deep end of the innovation pool. In the past few decades, "the Pentagon generally has not bought what we call 'clean sheet designs,' or helicopters that are designed from scratch, but instead they keep buying the next improved version of the helicopter already in their fleet," explains Ray Jaworowski, a senior aerospace analyst at Forecast International.
"The importance of Future Vertical Lift," says Jaworowski, "is that for the first time in quite a while, the Pentagon is asking the industry to develop a new-design helicopter or a series of new-design helicopters, and that will inject some much-needed innovation back into the US industry."
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Innovation has recently become a major buzzword in the Pentagon and defense industry — one that Defense Secretary Ash Carter has especially embraced since taking office. Innovation may be one valuable goal of the Future Vertical Lift program, but the long-term implications of the effort extend beyond any immediate boost to defense contractors and get to the much more aspirational realms of expanding engineering creativity and technological advancement. The scale of this program –– which, despite lots of defense-geek chatter, has not yet truly begun — implies a potentially enormous change. The rotorcraft that have been a staple of the US military in recent conflicts may soon be a thing of the past.
It's really difficult to pin down the big idea behind Future Vertical Lift. Replacing the fleet with faster, sleeker, more capable aircraft is a large, but actually superficial purpose. And boosting the creative juices of the defense industry shouldn't be the prime motivating factor of any large-scale procurement of new military equipment.
Future Vertical Lift's relationship to actual strategy, policy, or battlefield dynamics is still pretty darned vague, because the program is mostly a series of long-term plans. Actual decision-making isn't even scheduled until 15 years from now. There's still a lot of distance between where we are now and answers to those key questions about strategic consequence, cost, and technological feasibility. But the technological stakes are high: The competition might produce a revolutionary machine.
Leslie Hyatt, the product director for Future Vertical Lift, emphasizes that the effort is about addressing capability gaps in the current fleet. "The traditional helicopters just can't do some of those speeds and ranges that we're looking at … We need to go to a tiltrotor or compound [designs]."
"We're currently limited with physics on traditional aircraft configurations. We can't accomplish that combination of requirements with that traditional aircraft design," Future Vertical Lift's program manager Rich Kretzschmar adds, referring to the desire for these new rotorcraft to be able to carry heavier payloads at higher speeds for longer distances. Taking these overall qualities — speed, range and increased payload — it's possible to sketch out some of the ideas that Future Vertical Lift might grow into, if given the chance.
Increasing rotorcraft range (and speed) could conquer "the tyranny of distance," as described in a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies panel on Future Vertical Lift. Extending the range of rotorcraft could make them "strategically self-deployable," meaning they might cover long distances without needing to hitch a ride on a massive transport vehicle to get to a war zone. Self-deployability and range might also help the Army decrease its reliance on ground convoys, which can be vulnerable to attack.
Even with these goals in mind, the entire process is currently only in the technology demonstration phase dubbed Joint Multi-Role, in which two medium-lift rotorcraft designs are having an epic Jets-vs-Sharks-style dance battle, before the Army will fully commit to getting with the whole Future Vertical Lift program.
The two leading candidates in the competition to replace the ubiquitous Black Hawk in the far term are the V-280 Valor from Bell Helicopter and the SB-1 Defiant from Sikorsky. They're just beginning to emerge from imagination into reality. Sikorsky and Bell are longstanding participants in the Army's rotorcraft fleet. The Black Hawk is a Sikorsky design, and has been in service for the Army since 1979, when it replaced the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, commonly known as the "Huey" and ubiquitous in Vietnam War films.
There is a thrum of excitement around the Valor and Defiant, with bold names that call to mind the Knights of the Round Table and the CGI videos that dramatically envision their sleek battlefield performances. As mockups begin to appear on the floors of defense shows, they bring the Army's plans for future military aviation one step further.
The Valor is a tiltrotor aircraft made by Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin. It's not actually a helicopter, but rather a hybrid of helicopter and plane. The aircraft's twin rotors rotate 90 degrees: facing upwards for take-off and landing and facing forward to act like the propellers of an airplane during flight. Thus, tiltrotor aircraft combine the ability to take off and land vertically like a helicopter and the forward-flying speed and greater fuel efficiency of an airplane.
The Valor is something of a successor to the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey. The Osprey is already engaged in combat for the US, though not for the Army. The Osprey came to life after the failure of the 1980 Iranian hostage rescue attempt, and initially suffered setbacks both in cost and in early, fatal accidents that have marred its reputation.
The SB-1 Defiant is the Valor's current competition from Sikorsky and Boeing (though "competition" may be the wrong term now that Lockheed has purchased Sikorsky). The Defiant is more clearly a helicopter — a compound-coaxial helicopter, to use the proper engineering terminology –– and achieves speed not by combining the design principles of both helicopters and planes, but by stacking two rotors moving in opposite directions (coaxial) and adding in a rear-mounted propeller (compound). The use of coaxial rotors would be a new technology for the US military, though it's been part of Russia's fleet for decades, on helicopters made by Kamov (albeit without the SB-1's rear-mounted propeller).
The future of Vertical Lift at the moment comes down to whether the new and as yet experimental coaxial compound rotor technology will win out over the more researched tiltrotor concept. Both concepts are technologically established, but generally underutilized. As Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia explains, the question is whether "the devil you know, the tiltrotor concept, be refined, improved and [be] that the future of vertical lift? Or do you want to just pick up stakes and do something completely different, which would be the coaxial compound idea? Given the time horizon, I don't think they can decide that."
The first flight for the Valor isn't planned until 2017 –– and the procurement of a new medium weight rotorcraft into the Army's fleet wouldn't be until 2030. Aboulafia thinks that even this time frame for deciding the future of the Army's rotorcraft fleet is "science fiction."
Redefining an entire category of aircraft is an immense technological goal for the Army and Pentagon. The scale of Future Vertical Lift places it in danger of following in the footsteps of other acquisitions misadventures — programs like Ground Combat Vehicle, which was cancelled in 2014 after billions were expended trying to replace the fleet of Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, or the sprawling and unsuccessful Future Combat Systems program, canceled in 2009. Some suggest that the entire acquisitions system, known by the weighty title Integrated Defense Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Life Cycle Management System and illustrated by this aneurysm-inducing chart, is complex to the point of inefficiency and wastefulness.
These earlier, scrapped programs point to another obstacle for FVL: "utopia requirements," or technological goals that are more aspirational than practical, focusing on wants rather than needs on the battlefield. It may be too early to tell whether or not the desire to have low maintenance rotorcraft that can also fly at high speeds for long distances carrying heavier payloads is feasible either from a cost or technological standpoint.
The Future Vertical Lift program requires the Army to decide, as Aboulafia puts it, whether this "is a big battle concept worth paying for."
Whether or not the outcomes of Joint Multi-Role and Future Vertical Lift will be worth the effort is more than just a question of time and cost, but of where the program even fits inside a strategic plan for the future, either on the part of the Army or of the Pentagon. Military equipment has consequences for tactics and strategy; the development of major machinery is a process bigger than a raw requirement for speed or general impulse to innovate.
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Photo via US Army