Army Generals Discuss Next-Gen Combat Vehicle, Helicopter

To develop and field the next generation of combat vehicles, the Army needs to overcome the current problem: Adding new capabilities and systems is complicated by the weight-bearing and power-generation constraints of the original platforms. (Image courtesy of DASA(R&T))
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The U.S. Army's next workhorse helicopter must have an active protection system capable of shooting down incoming surface-to-air missiles, modernization leaders told Congress this week.

Lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee's Airland subcommittee pressed Army generals about how the service's new modernization reform effort is going to produce the next generation of combat systems -- from aircraft to armored vehicles -- at a Wednesday hearing.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, wanted to know how the Army's future UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter replacement is going to deal with new threats such as sophisticated air defenses from countries like Russia and China.

"What steps is the Army taking to ensure that that future platform be survivable in that kind of environment?" Cotton asked, referring to the service's Future Vertical Lift modernization priority.

Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski described how the Army is working with two joint multirole tech demonstrators, one from Boeing and the other from Bell Helicopter.

Future Vertical Lift

"We have had flights with Bell's tilt-rotor aircraft, and we have hope that, by late this summer, we will see the Boeing compound coaxial helicopter in flight," said Ostrowski, who is the principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology and director of the Army Acquisition Corps.

The information gained from the two tech demonstrators will allow the Army to set its priorities for the program, which must include aircraft survivability, he said.

"Aircraft survivability with respect to that platform and our current fleet remains paramount to us," Ostrowski said. "It is one of our top priorities within Future Vertical Lift."

The Army has been "investing heavily" to develop the ability to "interdict the particular missiles while in flight," he said.

"This is tough because we are always shooting behind the duck ... in order to defend an aircraft against a ground-based missile, you have to be able to confuse that missile. In order to do that, you must be able to take the steps necessary to create the software to do that -- that takes time and testing," Ostrowski said.

So the Army must "go after a kinetic capability, one that is not dependent on software in order to defeat or dazzle the particular surface-to-air missile," he said.

Just as active protection systems are key to future ground vehicles, "we have to have APS for our aircraft," Ostrowski said.

Next-Gen Combat Vehicle

Lawmakers also listened with interest as Army officials offered details on the Next Generation Combat Vehicle, a program that could replace either the Bradley Fighting Vehicle or the M1 tank or both.

"We are looking at all options, to include foreign vehicle design and new development," said Lt. Gen. John Murray, deputy chief of staff for Army G8.

The NGCV will likely rely on an alternative power source to get away from diesel and turbine engines, he said.

Any future combat vehicle would at least have the option to be unmanned, if not semi-autonomous or autonomous, so commanders at the point of contact would have the option to send the vehicle forward unmanned, Murray said.

It would likely have some type of simple artificial intelligence to provide driver-assist, 360-degree situational awareness and computer-assisted targeting and acquisition capabilities, he said.

Integrated active protection, enhanced lethality and lighter weight would also be highly valued in the NGCV, Murray said.

"Whatever we come up with, we have to account for operations in urban terrain ... so that is a lot out there that may not exist right now," he said.

"We can't wait 20 years to develop this vehicle, so we have got to find a solution that we can develop fairly quickly, that we can incorporate technologies as they mature in a relatively easy manner," Murray said.

FCS Failure

Cotton brought up past modernization efforts such as the failed Future Combat System, an ambitious effort to design a new fleet of lightweight manned and unmanned combat vehicles and other platforms to completely dominate future battlefields.

But the technology FCS depended on simply did not exist. The Army spent billions on FCS, only to see it fail when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed the 27-ton Manned Ground Vehicles portion of FCS in the 2010 budget while criticizing the advanced design as ill-suited to survive current battlefield threats.

"Would this Next Generation Combat Vehicle put us at risk of something like the FCS again -- that we are trying to build a platform that can do multiple different roles and, if it fails, then we fail across all those roles?" Cotton asked.

Murray said the Army's leadership is committed to not making the same mistakes that led to the death of FCS.

In one of the service's largest mistakes, he said, "We bet on a technology and developed a platform around those technologies and, when those technologies didn't deliver, the platform didn't deliver.

"The intent is figure out what is physically possible from a technology standpoint of what we can do today before we go into development, and then make sure we build space into the vehicle to incorporate technologies that we know are coming," Murray said. "You don't want to deliver something and, the day you deliver, it is obsolete."

Acquisition Reform

The Army is banking on a massive acquisition reform effort to help it make these and other modernization priorities a reality in the decades to come.

In early October, Acting Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy approved a special task force to stand up a new Army Modernization Command

The command's modernization work will be conducted through "cross-functional teams" that focus on each of the Army's six modernization priorities -- long-range precision fires; Next Generation Combat Vehicle; Future Vertical Lift; a mobile and expeditionary network; air and missile defense capabilities; and soldier lethality.

The concept of the sweeping modernization reorganization embraces rapid prototyping, engages warfighters at the beginning and keeps them engaged throughout the process, Army leaders maintain.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, asked how the acquisition reform effort is going to develop and field equipment more quickly when it's the same problematic communities that are still doing the work.

"You've got the science and tech folks that probably need to do a whole lot better job of reaching out to private industry on some of the new cutting-edge technologies and try to examine what the possibilities are. There is not enough of that that goes on," he said.

"The testing community sets unrealistic goals, so there is a lot of failures because the goals aren't realistic -- so the programs die or don't move forward," Peters said.

"And the requirements community always wants to do too much and be all things to all people," he continued. "And so you start putting all of that together in the hopper, and everything kind of grinds to a halt, which is obviously unacceptable at a time when technology is advancing at a pace we have not seen in human history.

"How would you characterize that assessment? Are these legitimate things we should be think about with those kind of communities?" Peters asked.

Murray could not argue Peters' points.

"I would say that you are fairly accurate," Murray said. "We do a poor job of reaching out to industry. A lot of times, it's because of concerns by our lawyers in terms of competition and giving an unfair advantage to competitors."

The Army is interested in fielding equipment quickly, using technology that exists today, but it has to be able to be upgraded over time, he said.

"We have been criticized, rightfully so, for our modernization efforts in the past," Murray said. "I think we have a very risk-averse culture."

The newly formed cross-functional teams will help change that culture, Army officials say.

"I think the Army's testing community has made great strides. We now have, as part of the CFT, ... testers, engineers, S&T experts and, hopefully soon, industry sitting down with requirements writers," Murray said. "So before we write a requirement, we know it's feasible, it can be tested relatively cheaply in a fast amount of time and that industry can actually produce it. And that is kind of what we are after as we go forward."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.