Army Unveils Family of Future Vertical Lift Helicopters

Sikorsky and Boeing are offering the SB>1 Defiant for the Army's Future Vertical Lift Program. Courtesy of Sikorsky-Boeing
Sikorsky and Boeing are offering the SB>1 Defiant for the Army's Future Vertical Lift Program. Courtesy of Sikorsky-Boeing

U.S. Army aviation officials on Tuesday offered a preview of the aircraft that make up Future Vertical Lift, a bold effort that rests upon developing a family of manned and unmanned rotary-wing aircraft to dominate the skies over future battlefields.

They include an advanced unmanned aerial system, future attack reconnaissance aircraft and long-range assault helicopter, all outfitted with advanced technology, officials said.

The Army continues to upgrade its UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 Chinook and AH-64 Apache helicopters, but the service's number-three modernization priority calls for replacing its Cold-War helicopter fleet.

"When we talk about Future Vertical Lift, what we are talking about is, where is the leap-ahead in technology? Where is the technology that is going to give us overmatch on the battlefield? Where is the technology that 10, 20, 30 years from now is going to make us the most lethal force on the battlefield?" Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told an audience at the Association of the United States Army's Global Force Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.

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As it stands, FVL will consist of several aircraft, starting with an advanced unmanned aerial system platform capable of delivering targeting data for long-range precision fires, said Brig. Gen. Walter Rugen, deputy commanding general of the 7th Infantry Division and director of the Future Vertical Lift Cross Functional Team.

It will also be capable of electronic attack on enemy radars systems.

"We want to be able to spoof those radars, jam those radars, hunt those radars and kill those radars," he said.

There will also be a future attack reconnaissance aircraft, "sized to hide in radar clutter ... to operate in the urban canyons of mega cities," Rugen said. This aircraft will be "optionally manned" with "a lot of autonomy baked into" the platform.

"And these two form our advance team, and this advance team needs to deepen the interoperability between our ground force and fires team to be able detect and deliver lethal effects, assess those effects and re-attack if need be," he said.

FVL will also consist of a future long-range assault helicopter, which will feature significantly upgraded protection "and be something that exploits our windows of opportunity," Rugen said.

All aircraft will feature an open system that will be highly adaptable and rapidly upgradable, he said.

"Aviation has been an asymmetric advantage for our Army and the joint force since Vietnam and LZ X-Ray, and we are not giving that up just because the air domain is tough," Rugen said.

The Army selected two firms to develop demonstrators in 2014. Textron Inc.'s Bell Helicopter created the V-280 Valor, which completed its first test flight in December. Sikorsky, part of Lockheed Martin Corp., and Boeing Co. built the SB>1 Defiant, a medium-lift chopper based on Sikorsky's X2 coaxial design.

Many challenges lie ahead for the complex program, aviation officials and industry experts on the panel said.

FVL is a joint program that may not be the best "management construct," said Jeffrey Drezner, a senior policy researcher at Rand Corp.

The Pentagon's J8 tasked Rand to look at FVL's management construct to see if a joint program structure makes sense, he said.

A lot of challenges exist in managing a joint program, such as aligning the requirements, schedule and budget, and keeping them aligned over time, Drezner said.

"The single most important aspect of this comes down to requirements," he said. "So if your requirement isn't the same -- and I said 'the same,' not similar -- a joint structure probably doesn't make sense."

Rand recommended a "lead-service management structure" for each FVL program, but if officials "really do want to take advantage of commonality across the services ... you probably need some kind of umbrella or higher-level organization both within the Army and within the DoD enterprise to coordinate those kinds of common elements," he said.

Brig. Gen. Thomas Todd III, who runs Program Executive Officer Aviation, said the program is relying on industry not to exaggerate on what it can deliver.

"To industry, we are looking for your candor, we are looking for your feedback, we are looking for your participation, but we also need to know what you actually can accomplish," he said.

"Make sure you produce and field when it's good enough, not when it is as good as it possibly could be," Todd said. "We absolutely have to make sure that we get this capability to the soldier and that we do not spend double that amount of time achieving the last necessarily 10 percent of capability when, frankly, 90 percent was good enough."

McConville noted the danger in placing too much trust in PowerPoint presentations.

"I have been very, very impressed with some of the PowerPoint briefs I have seen. But I will tell you our soldiers can't fly PowerPoint, our soldiers can't fight with PowerPoint, so we are going to challenge industry to work closely with us to develop the Future Vertical Lift that we need for our soldiers in the future," he said.

In the end, program cost will likely be the deciding factor for Future Vertical Lift, McConville said.

The Army has five other modernization priorities besides FVL: long-range precision fires; next-generation combat vehicle; a mobile and expeditionary network; air and missile defense capabilities; and soldier lethality.

"And we want to modernize within all of these priorities as we go forward," McConville said. "So we are not looking, quite frankly, to procure expensive aircraft. ... We want the aircraft priced at the same range that they are right now. We want them to be able to operate at the same price per hour.

"All these programs are competing against each other. ... What we are not going to be able to do is afford everything, and what we are not going to be able to do is spend large amounts of money developing things that are not going to get into the hands of the soldiers," he said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at

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