The US Army has a tight and relatively inflexible plan to modernise existing rotorcraft and eventually achieve a future vertical lift aircraft within the budget it has.
The entire modernisation plan hinges on completion of the controversial aviation restructuring initiative (ARI) being completed by 2019, says Maj Gen Michael Lundy, commander of the army’s Aviation Center of Excellence at Ft Rucker, Alabama.
If sequestration cuts are reinstated in fiscal year 2016, all bets are off that the service will be able to salvage current or future modernisation plans, he says.
"Right now, the strategy we’ve laid out and where we’ve got our priorities at is if we get a little bit of relief from sequestration, it will work. If not, I’ve got some draconian decisions to make," Lundy says. “If we went to the worst case, it would affect almost every modernisation programme we’ve got in our branch."
The ongoing ARI involves reducing aviation personnel by about 10,000 troops, divesting legacy Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters and a fleet of A- and C-models used as trainers. About 180 TH-67 Creek trainers will be sold as military surplus items, which has raised concerns about flooding the market with cheap aircraft.
Most controversial are plans to transfer Boeing AH-64 Apaches from the national guard and reserve to active units, which will give up Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks in return. The Apaches, teamed with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Gray Eagles, will absorb the armed aerial scout role from the divested Kiowas.
“The ARI is really about allowing us the capability to modernise our force,” Lundy says. “If we get sequestration, it’s just going to get tougher and we’re going to have to look at other cuts.”
The army’s larger timeline for force modernisation hinges on completion of the ARI by 2019. It was written into the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but hurdles remain. Congress has ordered formation of a commission to study the ARI and present findings to Capitol Hill. The NDAA allows only limited transfer of aircraft and personnel until Congress signs off on the full ARI.
Army officials are wasting no time executing the planned transition, because it represents the only way the service can afford its longterm modernisation goals, Lundy says.
“The only way we can do this is if we execute the ARI. We have looked at every other possible excursion, every one,” he says. “For the past year, we’ve come through thousands of models. This was not just somebody’s good idea. This was the right idea and it took a lot of figuring out.”
Already there are no OH-58Ds at the aviation school at Ft Rucker and pilots are no longer being trained to fly the legacy scout aircraft. At least two Kiowa squadrons have been divested and six more will follow in 2015, he says.
As part of the ARI, the army will drop three active combat aviation brigades. The service also will go from 37 “shooting” brigades to 20, he says. At least 300 Kiowa pilots will transition to the Apache while another 28 have volunteered to become unmanned systems operators, he says.
“That smaller force has got to be much more capable, so we need to field all our modernized aircraft and divest our legacy aircraft,” Lundy says.
The plan is to modernise existing aircraft with new systems and engines like the improved turbine engine, while divesting legacy aircraft through 2019, Lundy says. The joint multi-role technology demonstrator (JMR-TD) programme, which will showcase industry offerings for a potential FVL, will inform the fielding of that aircraft beginning in 2040.
Also competing for funding are two engine development projects aimed at creating faster, more fuel-efficient rotorcraft powerplants. The improved turbine engine programme seeks to find a drop-in 3,000shp turboshaft engine for Apache and Boeing CH-47 Chinooks that improves power by 50% with 25% decrease in fuel consumption. It will be the engine that modernises the power and range of the legacy fleet prior to fielding FVL, says Gen Daniel Allyn, army vice chief of staff.
“The ITEP engine will make legacy aircraft more effective by dramatically increasing range and the ability to fly in high, hot conditions,” he says.
General Electric is working on the Future Affordable Turbine Engine (FATE), an effort to find a 5,000-10,000shp-class turboshaft engine to power FVL and possibly as a replacement engine for existing rotorcraft.
With FATE, the army is looking for a powerplant that provides 80% greater power, a 20% lifecycle increase to more than 6,000hr with a 45% reduction in production and maintenance cost and 35% increase in fuel efficiency.
Funding for development of technologies like ITEP and FATE already is being squeezed by the army’s continued operational requirements around the world, says Allyn.
“We’re having to mortgage near- and midterm modernisation in order to sustain the minimal level of readiness that we must have to respond to emerging requirements around the globe,” Allyn says.
“We are snowplowing the fielding of available technologies that will make us a better fighting force,” he adds. “We make that decision fully realizing the risk that it applies to our force."