By almost any standard, US Army aviation has never looked in better shape. With an annual budget of $7 billion, three active production lines for manned helicopters and the Afghanistan war emphasising the value of vertical lift, the army's pocket of aviators enjoy unprecedented support.
The long-term outlook for the army's aviation branch, however, is not ideal. No new combat helicopter has entered service in nearly 30 years. All three active production lines are scheduled to shut-down within the next 15 years.
Fielding a new vertical lift technology could take billions of dollars and more than a decade, but the army has neither set aside funding nor approved any development programmes.
As the Association of the US Army (AUSA) hosted an annual aviation symposium on 13-14 January, army aviation leaders bluntly called attention to the branch's future predicament.
Col Randolph Rotte, aviation division chief on the army's headquarters staff, issued a call for immediate action. There is currently no strategy to replace the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk and Boeing AH-64D Apache.
"What if you do nothing?" Rotte asked. "So now it's 2025. You've procured your last Chinook in 2017. You procured your last Black Hawk in 2023. You procured your last AH-64D Block III in around the 2025 timeframe. What now? That's not the time to be asking that question. The time to be asking that is now."
The army, however, is struggling to fund the aviation branch's current bills, which include all three production lines, a $1.3 billion upgrade programme for the Bell Helicopter OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and a wide range of survivability and performance upgrades across the fleet.
Few resources have been left aside for science and technology accounts, said Brig Gen William Crosby, army aviation's acquisition chief.
"How can you look to the future when youv'e got a $7 billion budget, but just $107 million in [science and technology]," Crosby said. "How can you look to the next vertical lift technology with a pittance of an S&T budget like that?"
Complicating the army's case to invest in a new wave of vertical lift technology, however, is the absence of a clear threat. Although service officials have conceived of a family of multi-role aircraft employing advanced vertical lift technology, the army's current aircraft are expected to out-class potential opponents for 20 to 30 more years.
"There's no peer competitors for those aircraft into the future - into the 2030 [timeframe] and pushing up against 2040," said Col William H. Morris, the director of army aviation charged with setting policy.
In a new era of tight budget discipline, the army's latest attempts to field new combat aircraft have not inspired confidence either.
While modernisation programmes for the CH-47, UH-60 and AH-64 have proceeded relatively smoothly, cost overruns and delays forced the army to cancel the Sikorsky/Boeing RAH-66 Comanche and Bell ARH-70 Arapaho since 2004.
"In the last so many years we don't have a great track record for a clean sheet development in army aviation," Rotte said. "So how do you in a fiscally constrained environment with that recent history - how do you get something going?"
But that is clearly the focus of army aviation leaders this year. A line-up of speakers at the AUSA symposium highlighted both the challenge and the critical need of making decisions soon about army aviation's future.
"Are we going to continue to sustain [existing helicopter fleets] for another 20 or 30 or 40 years, or are we going to put our eggs in some sort of new vertical lift technology?" Crosby asked.
The first step will be to define a vision. Ongoing studies on "future vertical lift" by the office of secretary of defence and the army are analysing options. The rotorcraft industry, meanwhile, has formed a consortium to align the industry's science and technology spending with the army's priorities.
Finally, the army's science and engineering community has launched a future vertical lift programme, focusing initially on a joint avionics architecture that could be applied to a diverse family of future aircraft.
"Now we have to begin to shape the capabilities that we need for the future," said Col Timothy J. Edens, deputy commander at army aviation headquarters at Fort Rucker. "We must fix an aimpoint on the horizon and then develop a vision to hit that aimpoint without letting it slip to the right."
Helping the army make its case is the clarity that comes with the approaching deadline for finding a solution. If a new technology is expected to be fielded by 2025, a major development effort would have to begin by next year.
"Now that it's more than something way, way out there, things are starting to come into view," Rotte said. "Whatever it is, it's going to be hard, and it probably won't be cheap."