In Army Aviation's Future, a Mix of Old and New
Despite budget cuts that delayed Army aviation upgrades for at least two years, Maj. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield, commander of the Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence, said there will be opportunities for industry in modernization programs. Speaking April 3 at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual symposium, Crutchfield said: “I don’t know if the country will go bankrupt, but I see it as a sunrise. ... I’m not going to wait until it’s too late to plan for something we’re going to need in the future.”
That need is the somewhat nebulous Future Vertical Lift technology, a “revolutionary” new aircraft that will eventually replace the Army’s entire inventory of helicopters. Crutchfield has set the deadline for introduction of FVL in 2030.
But the program will compete for cash with other, more immediate concerns, like the possible replacement of the Army’s armed aerial scout helicopter. Acquisition officials plan to test industry offerings in June as potential replacements for the aging Kiowa Warrior. But that is an area in which Crutchfield and other aviation leaders have repeatedly said they would be willing to take “appetite suppressants” in favor of FVL.
“What we’re trying to preach is balance – because if you kill all of your investment programs, then what is left?” said Maj. Gen. William Crosby, program executive officer for Army aviation. “If we don’t have an investment program for the long term, we have nothing and it’s not something you can go to Wal-Mart and buy.”
Looking to 2030, however, Crutchfield envisions a dramatic turnaround from the ad-hoc upgrade scheme that Army helicopters have undergone over the past few decades, especially the previous 10 years of war.
Using a familiar metaphor, he compared the current rotary wing fleet to a 1960s pickup truck.
“You’re putting a new fan belt on it every now and then, but sooner or later, you’re not going to be able to get the parts for it,” he said. “Then it’s too late to plan for something I know we’re going to need in the future.”
That will change with FVL, which does not only consist of the aircraft itself, Crutchfield said. The campaign to reach that technological goal includes soldier and pilot training, leadership development and trainer aircraft.
“It’s not just about materiel,” Crutchfield said.
For now, the Army will continue maintenance of its current fleet. Flown “heavier and higher” than intended through two wars over 10 years, the aircraft routinely undergo “reset” when they return stateside. That program will continue, said Maj. Gen. James Rogers, commander of Army Aviation and Missile Command.
“We’re going to be in sustainment for quite a while,” Rogers said.
Every aircraft that comes back to the United States gets reset, but that isn’t a service-life extension, warned Crosby. “Flying at this op[erational] tempo at these kinds of rates … it’s putting wear and tear on these systems that reset doesn’t fix,” he said.
Crosby said the Army is learning where and how its aircraft are deteriorating most severely. Weight and harsh combat environments have put unforeseen stress on the service’s helicopters, he said.