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By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

The future of helicopter warfare in the “lower tier” of airwar will be informed by an interesting developmental, technological and conceptual alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom, long-time allies with a shared history of military collaboration and joint operations.

Future Vertical Lift Cooperative Program 

Both countries just signed a “Future Vertical Lift Cooperative Program Feasibility Assessment,” intended to ensure joint efforts to preserve and expand upon interoperability between the two allied nations in the realm of aircraft concepts of operation, innovation, research and technological integration.

“Collaboration with our Allies – be it bilaterally or multilaterally – helps ensure interoperability and provides insights that help us all achieve our capability objectives. Based on our shared history, it is very fitting and no surprise that our first project arrangement is with the United Kingdom,” Maj. Gen. Walter Rugen, Director of the Future Vertical Lift Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told Warrior in a written statement.

The US Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk and the United Kingdom’s Bell 212 utility helicopters can both support air assault raids, conduct MEDEVAC missions and deliver infantry into hostile fire, but how well could they operate together?

Refining, shaping and ultimately finding new answers to this question forms the primary inspiration for the US Army’s new agreement with the United Kingdom to pursue a joint helicopter modernization strategy. Both countries are now moving beyond their legacy platforms to engineer a new generation of rotorcraft equipped to counter an entirely new world of emerging threats.

Therefore, the recently signed “Feasibility Agreement” between the US and UK to collaborate on Future Vertical Lift technologies will certainly shape the landscape for future helicopter warfare and joint tactics, yet beneath the surface of this clear operational impact, the agreement is likely to break new ground in lesser recognized , yet equally critical technical areas.

A key goal of the effort, as described by senior Army developers, is to establish “transformational interoperability,” something increasingly brought to life through the use of common IP protocols, technical standards, interfaces and what’s often referred to as open-systems architecture.

Should otherwise separate platforms be engineered with an aligned or common set of software and hardware configurations, they can ensure interoperability and persistent upgradability as modernization evolves and new technologies emerge.

“We want to provide the future force with access to the best available technologies and concepts and, ultimately, enhance transformational interoperability in any combined action. We know we may need these transformational capabilities on a future battlefield for the benefit of the Soldier on the ground, Maj. Gen. Walter Rugen, Director of the Future Vertical Lift Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told Warrior in a written statement.

F-35B Queen Elizabeth

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Oct., 17, 2019) An UK F-35B Lightning fighter jet performs a vertical landing on the flight deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth (RO 8) during flight operations in the Atlantic Ocean. HMS Queen Elizabeth is currently deployed in support of WESTLANT 19 which involves mission planning, arming the aircraft using the ship's Highly Automated Weapon Handling System, flying missions and debriefing on completion. The first operational deployment for HMS Queen Elizabeth 617 Squadron and a squadron of US Marine Corps Lightning jets is due to take place in 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan T. Beard/Released)

The current Agreement is specifically designed to ensure a synergized technological modernization trajectory, as mentioned by Rugen. “This arrangement …..aims to reduce the divergence between the two countries’ open system architectures, a key component to keeping pace with emerging technology and rapid adaptability and capability evolution,” an Army statement on the FVL Feasibility Agreement states.

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Common technical standards enable faster, more seamless upgrades without needing to “re-engineer” software and hardware components when new technology arrives. This strategy also extends to include communications networks or “transport layer” technologies designed to empower secure, real-time information sharing across platforms.

“Assess the feasibility of and identify and assess risks associated with pursuing future cooperation in the Research, Development, Test and Evaluation, production, sustainment, and follow-on development of future rotorcraft,” an Army statement on the agreement says.

Should wireless connectivity systems such as radar, radio and other RF datalinks from both US and UK helicopter platforms be engineered according to open standards, then secure, seamless operational connectivity can be preserved yet also regularly upgraded moving into the future.

Much of this also lays down a foundation for continuous software upgrades across both US and UK helicopter platforms, meaning software updates can improve weapons capability, add interfaces to add new generations of weapons and enable hardware systems such as radar and antennas to detect new threat information without have to full re-architect the technology. This is likely why the US and UK agreement specifically references research, science and technology initiates as a key backbone of the joint effort.

Bell V-280

Bell V-280

“Together we are stronger. Our deep science and technology collaboration is an important element of this and makes us both more competitive. Today’s agreement formalizes our cooperation to help determine the future direction of aviation in competition and conflict,” Maj. Gen. James Bowder, the British Army’s Futures’ Director, said in an Army statement on the effort.

There is a lot of precedent for Rugen’s comment about US-UK allied operations and joint training and war preparation exercises. Of course British forces supported the US-led Coalition in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and as recently as last year the US Marine Corps flew some of its F-35B aircraft from the deck of England’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.

When it comes to helicopters and lower-tier aircraft such as those now being developed in the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program, US-UK developmental connectivity could likely translate into increased networking, target sharing, multi-domain operations. Shared developmental initiatives could help ensure that UK aircraft could be positioned to quickly share targeting information with US helicopters in real time to hand off target details, transmit time sensitive intelligence data and conduct joint-multinational attacks.

Given the range of anticipated helicopter missions moving into the future, such as delivering infantry to a forward point of attack under hostile fire, attacking enemy assets from angles and positions not attainable from the ground, delivering crucial supplies and performing critical MEDEVAC missions. Advances in speed, sensing, fuel efficiency for range such as those now being demonstrated in the US Army’s Future Vertical Lift program by Bell’s V-280 Valor Tiltrotor and Lockheed-Sikorsky-Boeing’s Defiant X.

Any ability to mass combat power could be massively fortified across a wider area of operations should US utility-attack helicopters be joined by their UK counterparts.

“As you would expect the British Army has an extremely close and productive relationship with the U.S. Army,” said Maj. Gen. James Bowder, the British Army’s Futures’ Director, said in a written statement from Army Futures Command.

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization