Contributing Post: MG Rudolph Ostovich III, US Army Ret.
There are no more critical attributes of any VTOL assault aircraft than that of speed and range.
As an old Army aviator who cut his teeth in command of an assault helicopter company in Vietnam and later as the aviation battalion commander in the 82nd Airborne Division, and then commander of an aviation group in Europe with the VII Corps during the height of the Cold War, I can assure you, both speed and range matter.
I am certain many other combat Army aviators have shared my frustration and anxiety as they found themselves slugging along in Vietnam at 110 knots in a Huey or during more recent combat operations at 140 knots in a Black Hawk. How often did they push their aircraft to the red line to get a few more knots of speed in order to get that assault force to the LZ, or to make the return trip with much needed reinforcements, or even more importantly, to quickly return a wounded soldier to the nearest appropriate medical facility? And then there is the frustration that comes with having to make frequent refueling stops in order to complete the mission while trying to maintain the operational tempo of the assault. Yes, speed and range matter whether smoking along at terrain flight altitudes to avoid enemy air defenses or amassing combat maneuver forces deep in the enemy’s rear area.
Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA)
To be sure, there are other important attributes which define the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) as an assault aircraft. Maneuverability, payload, survivability, sustainability, and cost are a few others that come immediately to mind. Yet when you consider how the Army is now returning to division and corps formations designed to conduct integrated large scale combat operations over extended distances defined by geography such as evident in the IndoPacific Theater, you come back to what must be the dominant performance characteristics for FLRAA…speed and range.
Consider for a moment the investment now being made by the Army in its Modernization Program. As CSA, General McConville has often said, the Army’s number one modernization priority is long-range precision fires. To get the full benefit of those fires, a maneuver Army must be able to move quickly to converge its forces and create an overmatch situation giving the commander multiple options for success. One element of this fires-and-movement equation fundamental to the concept of maneuver is FLRAA and what it brings to the fight.
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Now consider the depth of this battlefield. Imagine FLRAA-equipped units in dispersed lagger areas well to the rear of the line of contact, then moving to multiple pickup zones to begin a combat assault exploiting gaps in the enemy’s defense made possible by coordinated long range fires combined with attacking mobile armor formations supported by all the other resources now or soon to be made available at the corps and division level.
A good example of what this looks like is revealed in the Army’s Project Convergence series of exercises which also highlights the technologies that will be needed to make it all possible. Similarly, other exercises such as the 10-day Warfighter Exercise to be conducted later this year, featuring a scenario in the Pacific, will help train corps and division echelons consistent with this concept while conducting maneuver warfare over vast distances associated with the Indo-Pacific Theater.
Within a few short months, the Army will select one of two competing candidate aircraft for the FLRAA mission. Both candidates bring innovative designs to the table for consideration. The Sikorski-Boeing Defiant X offers improvements in traditional helicopter design with its unique coaxial rotor and composite propulsion systems, advancing earlier edgewise rotor designs much like the Russian Ka-52 attack helicopter as witnessed recently in news coverage from Ukraine.
The other competitor, Bell’s V-280 Valor, departs from this conventional helicopter approach to embrace an advanced tiltrotor design that offers the world of vertical lift aircraft previously unheard-of performance in speed and range.
Certainly, there are other factors beyond speed and range associated with each of these designs that impact FLRAA’s ability to meet the Army’s operational expectations. Consider the implications each will have on maintenance operations, specifically field operations at austere, dispersed lagger locations. Then there is the matter of sustainment costs, anticipated operational readiness rates, reduced logistic tails, and importantly, an ability to rapidly deploy to distant theaters on short notice.
With all that in the offering, we can conclude that FLRAA will have a dramatic impact on the future of VTOL aircraft and, more importantly, on how the Army will fight. For this reason, the decision on which of these two competitors will be selected must be rooted in an understanding of the Army as a maneuver force and the contribution FLRAA will make to winning in large scale combat operations. Though our attention is often focused on the aircraft, it is even more important to keep a sharp focus on its ability to move our land forces at speed and in depth to achieve overwhelming combat power at a place and time of our choosing.
MG (Ret) Rudolph Ostovich III was the former Aviation Branch Chief and Commanding General of the US Army Aviation Center. Today he is a partner in Parker Ostovich & Associates, LLC, a Defense consulting firm focused on the Conventional Army and Special Operations Aviation markets. Bell is one of their clients.