WASHINGTON: As the Army urgently develops weapons to counter Russia and China, it’s largely staying on its tight schedule despite both the COVID-19 pandemic and the service’s own history of dysfunction and delay. A prime example is the Future Vertical Lift initiative to replace existing helicopters and drones, which is on track for all but two of more than 20 major events – from field tests to contract awards – happening this year. Half a dozen are scheduled for May and June alone.
What’s the biggest impact COVID has had on FVL so far? Of the five project managers who spoke to reporters this morning, just one said he’s definitely delaying something, a Critical Design Review for the new Improved Turbine Engine. How big was that delay? Just two weeks.
The engine system CDR will start June 15th instead of June 1st, said the turbine PM, Col. Roger Kuykendall. But the deadline to complete the review wasn’t until October, he went on, “so we’re actually still ahead of our schedule.”
The other major impact has been on combat units field-testing potential Future Tactical Unmanned Aerial System drones, but that’s still in flux, said the unmanned aircraft PM, Col. Scott Anderson. Masked soldiers began flying one contending design, the Arcturus JUMP-20, began at Fort Riley a month ago. The second test unit, at Fort Campbell, started flying a different contender last week, as planned, Col. Anderson said. The third unit, at Fort Lewis, was scheduled to start in June: “The had asked to move back to July,” he said, “but it looks like, as of this morning, they’re going to maybe try to come back to June.”
That the FTUAS field tests are happening mostly on schedule is particularly remarkable, because it takes a team of soldiers to operate and maintain the drones, and they can’t maintain social distancing all the time. Most of the other FVL projects are in different stages of development where schedules, while packed, are full of activities that are a lot easier to do online, like planning sessions and digital design. But even where physical objects have to be built or flown, the project managers stay they’re staying on schedule.
For the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft to replace the Reagan-era UH-60 Black Hawk, PM Col. David Phillips said, “our demonstrators are continuing to fly.” Those are the Bell V-280 Valor tiltrotor and the Sikorsky-Boeing SB>1 Defiant compound helicopter, which despite the term of art “demonstrator” are de facto prototypes. The companies are now refining their designs and, in 2022, the Army will choose one for mass production. While Phillips didn’t provide details like flight hours – the Defiant has had a lot fewer so far – he said both aircraft are still providing test data to mature key technologies like flight controls.
FLRAA’s smaller sister is the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, a light scout to replace the retired OH-58 Kiowa. Once again it’s Bell and Sikorsky competing, but for FARA they haven’t built the prototypes yet. Those are set to fly in 2023. (That said, Sikorsky’s existing S-97 Raider is very close to their FARA design). Most of the work this year is being spent on digital design, said the FARA PM, Col. Gregory Fortier, but that should finish by December, so preparations to build the physical prototypes do have to get underway now.
“We have currently seen no impact, [but] there are certainly concerns within Bell and Sikorsky about long lead materials and shipping and the [subcontractors] at the second and third tier,” Col Fortier said. “They are okay with the summer timeframe and into the fall,” Fortier said. “If this thing stretches six months to a year, then that’s a different conversation.”
The FARA scout, FLRAA transport, and future drones will all have as many components in common as possible, especially electronics, and need to seamlessly share both tactical and maintenance data. To make this happen, they’re being designed to a common set of technical standards known as the Modular Open System Architecture, allowing the Army to plug-and-play MOSA-compliant components from any company for both maintenance and upgrades.
While existing Army aircraft can’t be retrofitted with the complete open architecture, the Army plans to upgrade them with a mini-MOSA called the Aviation Mission Common Server. AMCS will both provide some of the benefits of open architecture to the current fleet and real-world experience to help build the future system.
AMCS, too, remains on schedule, the project manager said. “We are currently on track to award an OTA [Other Transaction Authority contract] in June 2020 and negotiations are currently ongoing,” Col. Johnathan Frasier said.
The Schedule To Stay On
Future Vertical Lift is doing a lot this year. Here’s a list of most – not all – of the things they’ve accomplished so far and what they aim to do. A startling amount of it is due in June.
Modular Open Systems Architecture (involves multiple project managers)
April: Over 300 government and industry participants joined in a virtual meeting of the Architecture Collaboration Working Group fleshing out MOSA.
June: A follow-on ACWG meeting is scheduled. The Army will award an Other Transaction Authority (OTA) contract for the Aviation Mission Common Server (AMCS).
Engine & Electrical (PM: Col. Roger Kuykendal)
May-June: Tentative date for an industry day on electrical systems, including batteries, generators, Auxiliary Power Units (APUs), and thermal management (i.e. cooling).
June 15-19: Critical Design Review for the integrated engine system.
October: Power management systems demonstration, conducted with the Army C5ISR center.
Fall: Improved Turbine Engine testing begins.
Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (PM: Col. David Phillips)
March 17: The Army awarded Bell and the Sikorsky-Boeing team contracts for Competitive Demonstration & Risk Reduction (CDRR) of their rival FLRAA designs.
June: FLRAA and FARA will hold a joint industry day – virtually, of course – on their shared mission systems. And the FLRAA competitors will deliver conceptual designs to help shape the program’s final requirements.
Fall: Those FLRAA requirements will come up for review by the Army Requirements Oversight Council (AROC), a high-level body usually chaired by either the four-star boss of Army Futures Command or even the Army Chief of Staff himself.
Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (PM: Col. Gregory Fortier)
March 25: The Army picked Bell and Sikorsky to build competing prototypes.
May 15: Industry responses are due for a formal Request For Information (RFI) on FARA mission systems.
June: FLRAA and FARA hold their joint industry day on shared mission systems. Boston Consulting Group will deliver the first of two studies on FARA-specific mission systems.
Summer (month not specified): Deloitte will deliver the second FARA mission systems study. Sikorsky and Bell will both go through Preliminary Design Review.
December: Sikorsky and Bell will submit their final designs. With those approved, they’ll begin building the actual prototypes.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (PM: Col. Scott Anderson)
April: The first FTUAS contender began field testing (formally “demonstrations”) at Fort Riley, Kan.
May: The second FTUAS contender began field testing at Fort Campbell, Ken.
May-June: This is the likely window for the Army to award three Other Transaction Authority contracts for the mini-drones known as Air-Launched Effects (ALE).
June-July: Third FTUAS contender begins testing at Fort Lewis, Wash.
July: Fourth contender begins testing at Fort Bliss, Tex.
August-September: A fifth unit begins testing at Fort Bragg, NC. There are only four different designs being studied, so this brigade will double up on of the designs already in testing.
Fall: The Army Requirements Oversight Council will review the final requirement for FTUAS – which will be based on how the contenders actually performed – as well as requirements for a highly automated Scalable Control Interface (SCI) for all future drones. ( SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR.).

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