The Army is moving fast towards developing its next generation of vertical lift aircraft

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The Army is working with industry to develop a new generation of helicopters and drones that operate vertically. One recent milestone was the locking in of requirements for four lines of effort. For an update, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to the director of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift Cross Functional Team, Maj. Gen. Walter Rugen.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: General Rugen, good to have you on.

Walter Rugen: Thanks, Tom. Yeah, it’s great to be on. And thanks for your interest in Army aviation and more specifically Future Vertical Lift.

Tom Temin: Well, if it flies, we love it around here. And with respect to the requirements, I guess, that’s the big news at the moment is that you have requirements that are set for these four different platforms.

Walter Rugen: I would characterize it a little more nuanced, I would say set for this phase. Very much the Army wants to fly before we buy. So we want to prototype aggressively. And those prototypes will inform us on further requirements iteration to make sure what we’re going to buy is something that we can achieve technologically something that’s going to be effective against our pacing, threats, and maybe future enemies. And then something that’s going to be affordable, right? So we kind of want all three, we want to be effective, achievable and affordable.

Tom Temin: And on the two helicopter programs briefly tell us what those two are and what they would replace.

Walter Rugen: Yes, so Army Aviation, we haven’t had a clean sheet design since the 70s. And so when you look at our current fleet of Apaches and Blackhawks, they came out of the inflection point of Vietnam. And we’re really in dire need of getting into the digital age and getting a digital design that’s clean sheet because we’re running out of size, weight and power to kind of backwards engineer some of these advanced capabilities into the aircraft we want to build for the future. So the future long range assault aircraft is the Blackhawk replacement. We’ve had a very good couple of years coming out of our joint multi world tech demonstrator, which was again our prototyping effort where we kind of flew in against significant congressional support to do two rounds of risk reduction in 2020, and 2021. And then what you saw with this latest budget that came out of Congress, the appropriation was a four year acceleration on the future long range assault aircraft. And so, again, we want to have a squad plus enablers in Amy parlance, so 12 troops that we will haul and we will haul them at transformational speeds and ranges and insurances that really blow the current fleet out of the water. And so very pleased with the state of the program. I think everyone at Echelon from the Army to the department to Congress saw the tremendous success. And that’s why you saw for your acceleration come in this year, we’re in a bit of a quiet period now contractually, and so I’m going to probably end it there. Our Request for Proposal went out July 6, and the two competitors Boeing, Sikorsky on one side and Bell, on the other side, are in a year long competition in the Army looks to down select next year. And so in this contractual period, where there is those contract actions occurring, we’re a bit in our quiet period.

Tom Temin: But the basic designs of these advanced this whole idea quite a bit, the one I saw, I think, has like a propeller that pushes the helicopter forward, push or prop is something that you don’t see in the existing craft.

Walter Rugen: Correct. And you call them helicopters in the opening, and what I would tell you is the Army’s more thinking of them as rotorcraft now. So they have that vertical lift capability, but they fly much more efficiently at speed, which gives us tremendous range gain. And so that speed and that range, and then the digital design architecture that we hope to achieve, really are going to give us transformational capabilities in any future battlefield for our future aviators and future soldiers.

Tom Temin: And in both of these platforms, you’ve got a two company fly off planned. And beyond that, once the award is made, do you anticipate a second contractor for purposes of building into the future, so that there’s ongoing competition?

Walter Rugen: I think, again, we look at the future attack reconnaissance aircraft. That’s the second one that down select will be competing through fiscal year 23. And so that competition will continue. I think when you look at our modular open system approach and modular open system architecture, my anecdote is to kind of say the Army and Army Aviation wants an Android like capability. So we want to have an app for that with an open architecture that anyone can come into this space and compete. And so what does that competition look like? Well, it allows us to upgrade at the pace of technology. We’ve seen in some of our currently a five to seven year lag to get the current technology because the data rights and the intellectual property were locked up by the industry partner that we selected years ago. We don’t want that anymore. We want to keep it open. And we want to keep that competition going. And we want to keep Army Aviation upgrading at the pace of technology, which we think we’re going to need for our pacing threat. So I think, to answer your question, that’s where we see the competition in the future is in this modular open system approach.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Major General Walter Rugen he’s director of the Army’s Future Lift Cross Functional Team. And the terms open systems, open architecture are typically used for software. But are you also using them for not just the controls and the software that operate aboard these craft, but the mechanical and structural parts of the crafts themselves?

Walter Rugen: Sure, yeah. And a great example of that is our modular effects launcher. If you look at the launcher that’s on the Apache today, it pretty much just handles the hellfire missile, we want a launcher that is more like a USB port, right. Think of your computer, your laptop, your desktop, we want that USB port. And we want to define the USB plug in the software that comes into it. And so if we have a new effect, a new munition, a new drone, that we’re going to launch off of our platforms that it’s built, with the USB plug in the software, already defined as a standard, so everyone knows how to enter. And that governance and policy, that architecture and standard. And that software development is that exactly where we have industry focused. And it’s different. And it’s got to be transformational as well.

Tom Temin: And talk about the unmanned vertical list programs going on.

Walter Rugen: So we have two. One, we always have to kill you with acronyms, but its future tactical unmanned aircraft system. It’s really a shadow replacement for our Brigade Combat Teams. And what the brigades are complaining about what the system that was originally designed in the 90s is that it’s loud. It’s burned more than a few targets in our current conflict, because it is so loud. It’s tied to a runway. And we have these pretty big Ground Control stations that take a lot of either ground equipment to haul them or air equipment to air transport them. And so to have our corps 18th airborne cord first corps asked for something that was runway independent, lower acoustic and transportable organically with Army Aviation, ie Chinook aircraft or a Blackhawk, and we had our year long soldier touchpoint with five Brigade Combat Teams across the Army, across all of our corps. And what the soldiers came back and said, we want this now. And it is a replacement for the shadow. It is runway independent, it has a vertical lift capability to it. And then it takes off in a hybrid fashion and flows out. Once again speed as kind of an aircraft. So it’s very much both much lower acoustic signature fits in a Chinnok some fit in a Blackhawk. And what we also saw is that it could fly in the rain, which we didn’t know they were going to build that in but they did in the current shadow dozen, and then we’re flying them on the move. So soldiers could be driving in their truck or, or Humvee and be able to fly this on the move so much less targetable by any enemy that might be able to hack into our system and find where the ground control system is. So very proud of that effort. We’re looking for a two year acceleration, we asked Congress for some support in this latest budget cycle, and we’ll see if we get that support. The last thing we’re doing in the unmanned system is our air launched effect. And really this to kind of visualize it for your audiences, we have a potato gun on the side of our aircraft, and we’re flying our Blackhawk out there and we can launch the small drones out of the Blackhawks potato gun. And the drone has enough impulse to make it through the downwash of the aircraft and then fly. And they’re small, they’re plastic, they’re cheap, they’re battery operated, and the things that are going to shoot them down that they’re looking for will shoot a missile that maybe costs a million dollars, and these things are very cheap, and we’ll take that trade anytime. So we look very much for these drones to be able to flood the zone, to be able to overwhelm enemy threat systems. And the unique thing too, and it’s kind of like a Call of Duty video game that the kids are playing these days. But we’ve made it so that with the tablet devices that many of our soldiers are walking around with on the battlefield, that they’ll be able to move these aircraft take control the sensors, cover their dead space, do a quick very low latent reconnaissance and not have to communicate all the way back to an operator. And so it’s very ingenious and very transformational in the small drone space as well. And I think the last aspect I’ll bring to it is, Army Aviation is very good at flying over oceans or swamps or mountains and so delivering these small drones because we can fly over that difficult terrain really brings the ground commander a very big advantage because these drones can be overcome and providing those capabilities across a host of effects.

Tom Temin: And that gets back to the open systems, open architecture then you must be working to make sure that the future air launched unmanned systems are compatible with the future platforms that you have yet to award.

Walter Rugen: Yeah, I mean, you’re stealing my thunder. It’s exactly that. And this open system approach in the governance in the standards, we’re defining industry can just build those standards. And many of our small businesses that are truly going to transform our capabilities are loving it. And some of the larger industry partners are trying to understand exactly where the profit margin fits in, we don’t want to steal that we don’t want to steal that innovation, we do have to change because we have to build things that are affordable, while still transforming the battlefield.

Tom Temin: And all of this development and planning, of course, happens in the context of a change in doctrine toward great power competition, and enemies that are increasingly capable both in cyber and mechanical space, if you will. And so how do you ensure that there are future proof against what, I don’t know, China could come up with?

Walter Rugen: I think we’ve done a little over 100,000 engineered runs. In our high fidelity physics space model, the model is one of the best in the nation. And it characterizes everything in RF, electromagnetic visual acoustic spectrums. And we’re able to fight this over and over, like I said, 100,000 times. And the model is good to an extent, but then we’re taking it out to our Western test ranges. We were out to Channel Lake in 2019, we’re out to Yuma Proving Ground in 2020, we’re out the dugway proving ground in Utah is always fighting against these threats, live threats, live threat emitters, to make sure the formation we’re putting together is interoperable with the Joint Force. So we fight as a team and winning matters. Winning as a team matters even more. So we got to be interoperable. But also we got to be lethal and survivable on our own right. And that’s what we’re proving out at the western test ranges. And all that data is flowing out of that model, what we’re seeing is that the lower tier, the air domain, 300 feet below matters, there’s a lot of radar clutter there, there’s a lot of places for us to hide, and sneak and peek, and show up where we want to show up at the time and place of our choosing to present multiple dilemmas to any enemy. And that’s what vertical lift has always done. And with the speed and range of our future aircraft, we close those distances much more rapidly than the enemy is anticipating, and again, show up on a flank or in some surprised manner, that is going to put them at a pace in a temple that will break.

Tom Temin: And do you anticipate these platforms being force multipliers in the sense that I think the Army is less anticipating large ground troop movements en masse and seeing a more agile and more small force type of future.

Walter Rugen: Yeah, and I think, again, flexible too, right. So if we do see our self in another cold war kind of scenario, where we’re maybe not going toe to toe, but we’re maybe fighting the enemy systems in a surrogate, that, again, we’re flexible to go to any theater, not just our current pacing theaters, which is INDOPACOM and Yukon. But if it shows up, and AFRICOM, it shows up in the Middle East, we’re going to be able to fight there too and win. My last thing would be, we are going to be affordable. And it’s not just that we’re effective, but the Congressional Budget Office has looked at us, and a number of think tanks, looked at our program to make sure that what we’re developing is not going to break the bank. And we continue to have that transparency with Congress and with a number of our auditors to make sure not only are we going to be effective, but we’re going to be affordable.

Tom Temin: Major General Walter Rugen is director of the Army’s Future Lift Cross Functional Team. Thanks so much for joining me.

Walter Rugen: Thanks for the interest and really appreciate your listeners.

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