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New US army chief embraces predecessor’s aviation upgrade plan

The US Army’s new top general isn’t planning any major shakeup of the ground force’s aviation modernisation plan, but there may be opportunities to move faster on Future Vertical Lift.

Gen Mark Milley, who assumed the army chief of staff job in August, says the current programme of continual upgrade and improvement of legacy aircraft designs – primarily the Sikorsky UH-60, Boeing CH-47 and AH-64 – offers the right balance “in terms of survivability, lift capabilities and modifying engines”.

Speaking to Flightglobal at the CNAS National Security Forum this week, Milley offered an upbeat appraisal of the modernisation plan put in place by his predecessor Gen Ray Odierno, who was chief of staff from 2011.

“One of the largest subsets of our readiness budget is aviation, so we sink a lot of money into aviation,” he says. “We’ve got a good programme that was laid in by my predecessor and I’m going to sustain that.”

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Boeing's CH-47 Chinook design has been updated and modified since the 1960s and the manufacturer expects it to remain in service through 2060.

US Army

The commitment to stay the course would be welcome news for incumbent military helicopter manufacturers Boeing, Airbus Helicopters (LUH-72 Lakota) and Sikorsky parent company Lockheed Martin, but a tough pill to swallow for army outsiders like Bell Helicopter.

Today, the army is pumping its limited aviation resources into recapitalising the AH-64D Longbow Apache with E-models and introducing the CH-47F Chinook and UH-60M and V-model Black Hawks – ensuring at least another 20 years of service for the already decades-old designs.

The army is also moving forward with its CH-47F/G Block II new-build and remanufacture programme to keep the Chinook in service through 2040, and an Improved Turbine Engine project aims to increase rotorcraft power, fuel efficiency and time between services.

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The Boeing AH-64 is the army's only front-line attack helicopter, and will eventually be replaced by an armed variant of a mid-sized FVL rotorcraft.

US Army

The next chance for Bell to enter widespread army service is via the long-considered Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme through its work on the V-280 Valor third-generation tiltrotor. But the endeavour to replace the Black Hawk and other legacy types through FVL isn’t expected to start for several more years.

Members of the competing V-280 and Sikorsky-Boeing SB-1 “Defiant” Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator projects have called on the army to speed up the transition to FVL, but there have been no firm commitments by the army so far. Asked if he would consider moving quicker on FVL, Milley says: “The short answer is yes, we’re looking at [Future] Vertical Lift.”

The general says there will be no fundamental shift in aviation modernisation resourcing in the army’s budget proposal for Fiscal 2017, and he doesn’t see the army breaking away from the Chinook or other long-standing designs any time soon.

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