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Pentagon Works to Avoid Past Mistakes With Next-Gen Helicopter Program

As a program designed to develop a family of aircraft to replace workhorse helicopters for the Army and other services moves forward, an official who oversees the program is urging caution and deliberate action to ensure the Pentagon ends up with a winner.

Marine Col. Robert Freeland, a supervisor of the Future Vertical Lift program at the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, referred to "mistakes" made in the past that resulted in the Pentagon ending up with a less-than-ideal aircraft.

"If you get all the way to the [Engineering and Manufacturing Development] phase -- that's your Milestone B -- you're pretty much stuck with that configuration," Freeland said during a panel discussion with industry partners at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Tuesday.

" ... We have to characterize and take the time to get reliability and maintainability right, and we've got to get the backbone in place with the appropriate interface controls," he said. "Otherwise, [there is] so much inertia that you have to try to overcome, that you end up stuck with something."

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Freeland noted that some of the "really effective systems" in service today are very expensive to maintain due to issues that weren't addressed in development.

"That's not what we want," he said.

Freeland did not name specific aviation programs in which such acquisition mistakes were made. But a commonly cited example of acquisition malpractice is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which continues to see cost overruns tied to development and has weathered significant program delays. While the unit cost of the aircraft is coming down, maintenance costs remain high, more than $40,000 per flight hour for the F-35A.

With Future Vertical Lift, the military is working to develop a family of replacements for the Army's UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, CH-47 Chinook, and OH-58 Kiowa helicopters, and possibly the Navy's MH-60 Seahawk as well.

The Marine Corps and Air Force have expressed interest in the FVL program. Sikorsky and Boeing are jointly developing a medium-lift option, the SB-1 Defiant, while Bell has a tiltrotor design, the V-280 Valor.

Both were initially set to begin demonstration flights later this year in a precursor to FVL, but the Defiant is now expected to be ready for flight in 2018 instead.

Key to the success of the program, Freeland and industry personnel said Tuesday, are open-architecture designs that allow the aircraft to develop at the speed of technology and benefit from competition.

Freeland urged those developing FVL designs to focus on the must-haves: survivability, reliability, and proper maintainability.

"Don't try to get it perfect right now," he said. "If you try to get all the different Christmas lights that are going to be on this aircraft eventually, lasers and otherwise, it might take you some time to get all that stuff right. If ... we get the backbone right, then we can iterate some of the other stuff."

While production of the FVL aircraft is expected to start in the late 2020s, Freeland said, the actual timeline will be tied closely to the performance of the demonstrators now under evaluation.

If the military takes the right amount of time to get the "backbone" of the new aircraft right, "that just blows the doors wide open for foreign military sales and commercial application," he said. "So again, patient and wise capital. We take the right time to get it done."

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