In with the Old, Out with the New: The Army’s Modernization Challenge

By Bob Smith
For U.S. Army aviation, uncertainty in federal budgets seems to have elevated the expression of “doing more with less” to a more permanent and enduring status.

After more than a decade of warfare, Army aircraft have been stretched far beyond their original intended lifespans. Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno have stressed that the Army’s ability to field a ready and capable force that meets mission requirements has been placed at risk by fiscal challenges.

As a result of budget constraints, instead of updating its war-fighting capabilities with new platforms, one of the Army’s few remaining remedies is to modernize those currently in use. The concept of platform modernization is not new. The Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, which first entered service in 1979, is now an M-model. The Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter, first fielded in the 1960s, is beginning to emerge in its F-model configuration.

Traditionally, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have performed these upgrades and modernization initiatives. As the originating program contractor, an OEM is already familiar with the platform and in most cases, owns the technical data rights for the platform. For these reasons, it has been advantageous for the Army to rely on the OEM for upgrades and parts, although occasionally with less focus on price or total cost of ownership.

Today, cost reduction has become a driving issue, one that could dramatically increase overall program risk unless decisions are made in a careful and comprehensive way. As troops draw down and sequestration begins to seriously affect budgets across the service, critical decisions for aircraft survivability and platform management may require careful balance be maintained between short-term readiness and longer-term modernization and sustainment needs.

The Army is adopting alternative ways to get more bang for its buck in sustaining and modernizing its aircraft, and is working with impartial industry partners to develop a platform modernization roadmap to gain greater control over the service-life extension process.

The military must cost-effectively extend the service life of existing platforms while adding new capabilities for evolving mission requirements. Platform modernization may well be the solution for the military services as they face tight budgets and evolving operational objectives.

For instance, the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) is focusing on improving efficiency at the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center’s (AMRDEC) prototype integration facility at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.

Working with private-sector engineers, the prototype integration facility assists in the development, manufacturing, integration and modification of major systems to help the Army extend the service life of aviation and missile systems and subsystems.

Another new approach that will help the Army drive value with limited dollars is the platform modernization roadmap. This blueprint gives the Army authority over the total modernization lifecycle, allowing the service to minimize risk while controlling the acquisition process. The platform modernization roadmap is based on joint collaboration between the Army and contractors in order to plan for the changes needed based on the most beneficial tradeoffs available. Other goals include determining through reverse engineering and physics-based engineering analysis what technology is needed to meet the objectives; and developing a prototype to prove the new design works before proceeding with production.

At that point, the industry partner is able to provide the Army with a technical data package that allows the service to solicit competitive bids for subsequent production efforts.

The OH-58F Kiowa Warrior helicopter cockpit and sensor upgrade program is a successful example of the platform roadmap approach. The newly updated Kiowa Warrior recently celebrated its first test flight at Redstone Arsenal. In this effort, the Army had the role of system integrator, saving the government more than $37 million during the research, development and testing and evaluation phase. The Army anticipates saving more than $550 million during the procurement and production phases, while extending the service life of the Kiowa Warrior for at least another 12 years.

This platform modernization roadmap has also been applied to help the Army improve rotorcraft survivability and navigation through degraded visual environments. DVEs include weather conditions or obscurants that inhibit the aircraft crew’s situational awareness and ability to make sense of its immediate surroundings, which can cause pilots to get disoriented and crash. This is a major hazard in environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where crews are often forced to battle the granular, sandy terrain.

To improve these capabilities, the Army outlined a multi-pronged approach which includes updating existing flight control systems and aircraft handling characteristics, improvement of queuing technologies and use of various sensor technologies.

With an eye toward providing greater tactical and operational advantages to crews operating in poor visibility environments, a platform modernization roadmap seemed like an optimum alignment. The Army, in collaboration with engineers from their Aviation Center of Excellence, the Army Combat Readiness Center in Fort Rucker, Ala. and AMRDEC in Huntsville, has developed and integrated DVE-mitigating technologies within an open, rapid prototyping environment. This approach is saving lives and aircraft while proving both efficient and cost effective. 

On the industry side, companies are making significant investments in advanced scientific engineering, rapid prototyping and total baseline integration to help the Army better manage and upgrade existing aircraft, while driving innovation up and modernization costs down.

But despite this evolution and innovation, problems linger. OEMs are still controlling many engineering changes — especially for older platforms — because they own the technical data describing how pieces fit together. As a result, the Army may not have ownership over its strategic roadmap and risks paying more for a potentially inferior result. The range of technology and innovation is limited to a single source.

The Army should embrace this roadmap approach to guide platform modernization.

The benefits will include ownership of important technical data now held by OEMs and greater flexibility in the technical specifications and acquisition of needed aviation improvements. It will save significant time and money, while sustaining and improving the nation’s vital military equipment.

Bob Smith is a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm. He is based in Huntsville, Ala.

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing, Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Policy

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