Army Having Second Thoughts on Procurement of Vertical-Lift Drones
The Army can no longer afford to go after everything it wants, Col. Robert Sova, capability manager for unmanned air systems at the Army Training and Doctrine Command, said April 19 at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual forum.
Sova suggested that the acquisition of an unmanned vertical-takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft may not be in the best interest of the Army. Sova said he has often been labeled “anti-VTOL,” but disagrees with that characterization. “Absolutely not,” he said. VTOL is a “great capability … But we can’t have everything we need. We have to be careful and cognizant of what it would cost. Where does it fit into our overall aviation strategy? Does it fit?”
Sova expressed concern about the maintenance costs associated with a VTOL drone. These aircraft are known to be high maintenance. For instance, a rotor gearbox must be replaced every 125 hours, he said. “If my mission is 20 hours, do the math. That’s expensive.”
Sova said that the service would keep track of Marine Corps and Navy efforts with VTOL. These aircraft are valuable when the military has to deploy or drop cargo in areas without runways. But he raised questions about the technological maturity of these systems. An unmanned VTOL aircraft would need to have 12-to-24 hour endurance, be able to operate in extreme temperatures and at high altitudes, and be outfitted with optional payloads that can added or taken off as needed. Once munitions or tactical cargo is added to the aircraft its endurance would be dramatically reduced, Sova said.
“I don’t think there is any disputing today that a fixed-wing aircraft is going to fly longer than a rotary-wing aircraft,” he said, though members of the audience, consisting of representatives from military and industry, visibly disagreed.
The Army also needs to recognize that it must focus on reducing its force structure, and a VTOL may increase the need for more soldiers to operate it, Sova said. The Army is trying to consolidate efforts by having a single operator fly multiple platforms.
“Although materials are expensive, what’s more expensive is people and force structure,” he said. “Until we can truly embrace and get the technology for autonomy and these things start talking to each other, then we will have a challenge utilizing this particular capability.”
Sova insisted that VTOL still falls short in providing “persistence, reconnaissance and surveillance at the tactical level and below.” He said that the Army would have to further study whether an unmanned VTOL could fill current capability gaps.
Sova’s comments struck a nerve with industry representatives in attendance. Some lamented that the Army is again turning its back on a VTOL UAS. “Let the excuses begin,” one executive said.