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Contributing Post: MG Rudolph Ostovich III, US Army Ret.
In just a few months the Army will decide which of two competing candidates will go forward to ultimately produce the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA). Though remarkably different in design, both candidates are mature concepts that have given Army leadership an opportunity to achieve its fly-before-buy approach, an important feature of the Army’s modernization initiative, and one that contributes to the community’s optimism that it will finally be able to successfully field a new major weapons system on time and at cost.
Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA)
One candidate has elected to remain with a traditional helicopter approach modified with a new compound, counter-rotating coaxial ridged rotor system augmented with a pusher prop or propulsor for additional speed at cruise. The other competitor offers an aircraft design that responds to the Army’s aggressive demand for speed and range by employing a modified tiltrotor that takes advantage of wing-born lift to achieve remarkable speed and range while retaining vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) characteristics. The two significantly different approaches should give Army senior leaders a clear choice as to which will best meet their expected capabilities.
That said, we need to be careful not to conclude that this is just another Army Aviation program simply intended to replace the existing inventory of UH-60 Black Hawks. It is not. This decision will change the way the Army fights. It is all about how our nation’s land force will maneuver in time and space with speed and range to achieve overwhelming combat power through convergence at the point of decision. It is about how our soldiers will fight should it be necessary across the plains of Europe, Africa or over the vast distances of water characteristic of the Indo-Pacific theater of operations.
Whether by foot, truck, track or aircraft, so is FLRAA all about moving soldiers to gain a position of advantage. Think of these aircraft as a means by which soldiers can now break free from the tyranny of terrain with incredible speed and range. In many ways, this single Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Program is the linchpin that connects many of the Army’s modernization initiatives such as long-range precision fires. Remember, whether at the squad or division level, maneuver involves movement and fires…and both will be needed to conduct large scale combat operations consistent with Multi-Domain Operational Doctrine.
Unfortunately, some recent articles predicting that the Bell V-280 Valor may win the competition, have fed skeptics with misinformation appealing to their false belief that FLRAA is simply not affordable. Often this issue rests not on the initial procurement cost, but on the cost of ownership. Sadly, this discussion, often employed to gain momentary marketing advantage, only serves to erode support for a program that is so essential to Army modernization.
At times like this, it is useful to fall back on the time tested and proven mnemonic, DOTMLPF-P (Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership, Personnel, Facilities and Policy) to assess what if any impact FLRAA and the V-280 might have on the Army’s cost of ownership. Four among these categories, Training, Materiel, Personnel and Facilities, appear most relevant to structure a response to these harmful assertions.
Training: A recent article in a widely read Defense magazine expressed concern that tiltrotor aircraft will demand extensive and costly changes to how we train aviators and aviation soldiers. Simply stated, it won’t. The author offered a rather tortuous construct based on a presumption that V-280 aircraft qualification would take place after the student aviator completed flight school. Though such a concept is possible, the more likely sequence of training events would be to include V-280 qualification as part of flight school where the student aviator having completed Phase I Initial Entry Rotary Wing Common Core on how to fly helicopters, would then transition to the V-280 during Phase II in the Go-to-War aircraft, just as we do today with UH-60, CH-47 and AH-64. This integrated, common sense and efficient approach would apply equally to both FLRAA candidate aircraft and avoid any unnecessary cost of ownership resulting from a federated approach to training.
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Materiel: Some have asserted that the Army will not be able to afford FLRAA should the V-280 win the competition due to its increased maintenance and support costs. The truth of the matter is that both candidates have made major advances in cutting the cost of ownership specifically in the areas of maintenance and support due to their fly-by-wire all digital designs (digital thread), 3D virtual environment applications, analytics and artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, improved manufacturing techniques, new space age materials, and advances in engineering that improve, by order of magnitude, fuel efficiency and extend Mean Time Between Maintenance Actions (MTBA). The net benefit of these contributions will significantly reduce maintenance and support costs and thereby the overall cost of ownership.
It is now reasonable to anticipate that FLRAA, and specifically V-280, will bring to the field an aircraft digitally connected to its maintenance and support system enabling serial number prognostics and preventative maintenance practices, a system that sees each tail number and its operational data, and one that “calls home” to let its support infrastructure know what if anything is needed to keep the aircraft in a safe and mission ready status. It is reasonable to presume that such a wealth of actionable knowledge through digital analytics will justify new concepts governing expanding scheduled maintenance periods that will in turn reduce maintainer touches and eliminate unnecessary maintenance actions without increasing risk. This reduced maintainer burden will allow opportunity for targeted reduction of maintenance footprints in forward deployed areas eliminating the need for large, static formations all of which will grant unit commanders essential maintenance-free operating periods while engaged in high operational tempo across a vastly distributed battlefield.
When it comes to sustainment…count the moving parts. Is there any question about the cost to sustain a fixed wing aircraft compared to a helicopter? The one has comparatively few moving parts, the other has comparatively few stationary parts. Every turning, moving and vibrating component is characterized by increase wear, tear and failure. So, when it comes to calculating the cost of ownership due to sustainment, simply count the moving parts.
Personnel: It has been reported that some individuals harbor concern that introducing a tiltrotor aircraft into the Army inventory will precipitate new force structure and new skill sets adversely impacting the existing personnel system. Rest easy. Such is not the case. Based on analysis conducted during the CD&RR Phase, V-280 Valor is supportable within the existing MOS structure for operators, maintainers, and support personnel found within the Assault Helicopter Battalion, the Aviation Support Battalion, and the Theater Aviation Maintenance Support Group. As with both FLRAA candidates, skill gaps that require further assessment have been identified. High-level examples of gaps derived from air vehicle design include tasks associated with maintaining retractable landing gear, composite repair, and maintenance of fly-by-wire systems. Such gaps do not necessarily create the need for additional qualifications but can be addressed through changes to initial training programs of instruction.
Facilities: Most recently, there has been some clamoring about how the V-280 is larger than the UH-60 Black Hawk thus demanding construction of new hangars, shop support facilities, and ground support equipment, all of which must be added to the calculus when computing the cost of ownership. Such is not the case. V-280 will fit comfortably in both attack/assault battalion and general support aviation battalion aircraft standardized hangars. Estimates are that it can be accommodated in a standard attack/assault helicopter hangar for normal maintenance activities while additional aircraft could be parked in the hangar should the need arise to conduct extended maintenance actions or to seek protection from emergency weather conditions.
Regarding tools and support equipment, analysis has confirmed that 87% of the Aircraft Ground Support Equipment (AGSE) and Peculiar Support Equipment (PSE) used to support UH-60 and AH-64 aircraft can be used in support of the V-280. Further analysis is still underway for all categories and levels of repair with emphasis on minimizing the need for newly developed and procured support equipment, but it is reasonable to expect that this effort will be similar for both FLRAA candidates since both include new designs and materials. It is also useful to observe that analysis has also concluded that initial V-280 maintenance tasks and complex maintenance procedures can be accomplished with organic tools found in the standard Army utility helicopter unit. Bottomline: bantering about imbedded cost of ownership driven by the need for new hangars, shop support facilities, and ground support equipment is simply not true.
With all that said, let the competition proceed with full support from all those who wish this program success. I am certain the Source Selection Evaluation Board will competently review and score both proposals in a fair and open manner, and that the Army leadership with the full support of DOD and Congress will bring this program to a successful conclusion by placing an aircraft into the hands of our soldiers that delivers a new, exciting and essential dimension to future maneuver warfare. But to do so, those of us who count themselves part of the Army Aviation community, and in a larger sense the Army, must now pull together to bring FLRAA selection and fielding to a quick and successful conclusion.
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.