What does the future hold for the Army in the air?

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The Army might be the nation’s primary ground combat force, but it has lots of assets that fly, like missiles and helicopters. For an update on what is ahead for these platforms, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin traveled to the Deep South to speak with Dr. James Kirsch, the acting director of the Aviation and Missile...


Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Army might be the nation’s primary ground combat force, but it has lots of assets that fly, like missiles and helicopters. For an update on what is ahead for these platforms, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin traveled to the Deep South to speak with Dr. James Kirsch, the acting director of the Aviation and Missile Center, within the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command in Huntsville, Alabama.

James Kirsch: We are responsible for all of the Army’s Aviation and Missile Systems. So if it does fly for the Army, we’re responsible for it. Now we’re responsible for it in terms of providing the technical expertise; the actual procurement of those devices that are fielded to the Army is handled by a sister organization, the Program Executive Office for Aviation.

Tom Temin: Right, so you’re upstream from actual deployment and acquisition of aviation and missiles.

James Kirsch: That’s true for our primary mission. However, we actually provide technical expertise on all of the systems that are in the field for the Army today, throughout their time in the field, during production, all the way through when we pull them out of the field.

Tom Temin: Right, the implication is that these have long life cycles, aviation platforms, and they undergo modernizations, updates, sometimes new engines even, new designs of parts throughout their lifecycle?

James Kirsch: That’s absolutely correct. And we are a part of that throughout their lifecycle.

Tom Temin: And tell us about the infrastructure for development here, I imagine — you tell me — but there’s a combination of [computer-aided design (CAD)] systems where people design things, and maybe we can get into the digital twin idea if that’s something you’re looking at, and is there also wind tunnels for air foils, and that kind of stuff?

James Kirsch: There are. Actually, we are spread across several different locations. So while the headquarters of the Aviation and Missile Center is here at Redstone Arsenal, the predominant amount of work we do for our aviation systems is either in California or in Virginia. So at the Moffatt Field, or NASA Ames Center in California, or Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. And so those locations have the laboratory facilities, including wind tunnels, test capabilities, as well as the engineers and the scientists who are doing that work. And we also have, in those locations, everything from the early digital design all the way through laboratory scale models where they are doing testing in places like wind tunnels, or eventually in actual flight in a live environment.

Tom Temin: And does all of this activity include fixed wing aircraft that is as distinguished from rotary wing or helicopter and missiles?

James Kirsch: So the Army does have fixed wing aircraft as well. But the predominant number of fixed wing aircraft we have are in what we call the unmanned aerial system world. So they’re the unmanned systems that we fly, but we do have fixed wing aircraft that the Army uses for a variety of purposes. And yes, from an aviation standpoint, we’re responsible for those as well,

Tom Temin: Looking across aviation, the unmanned is an area of huge development, I think, across the armed services. And then from time to time, generation to generation, the Army decides it needs a new generation of platform, say a helicopter. Where do you fit in, in the scheme of ‘hey, it’s time that this particular generation is coming to the end of its lifecycle,’ then you put requirements out and industry then maybe develops prototypes for a fly-off, which could be 10 years later, who knows? Where do you fit in between those two steps?

James Kirsch: So we fit throughout that cycle actually. So we are doing the early developmental work in all of the various systems that make up an aircraft and and trying to project what is the Army going to need in the future. And then as we continue to develop those technologies, we provide feedback to the Army on whether these are technologies we can insert into current platforms that are in the field today, or whether it requires such a leap ahead and capability that we need a new platform. So for example, right now the Army is in the process of developing two new manned platforms: the Future Long Range Assault aircraft — or FLORA — and the Future Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft, FARA. Those two aircraft are such a leap ahead in capability in terms of range and speed, as well as what we call a modular approach where we’re not locked into a single vendor. Those two aircraft are such a leap ahead, that they’re essentially a clean sheet design, start from scratch. And so we did some early work with industry on concepts and prototypes. That is now transitioned to PEO aviation, as true programs of record. We’re also doing that with the future tactical unmanned aerial system, which again, is an unmanned system, but it is a brand new class of aircraft that will provide a great leap ahead in capability over the current systems we have in the field today.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Jim Kirsch, he’s acting director of the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation Missile Center. Getting back to the future long range assault platform, that’s kind of a helicopter, but if I’m correct, it also has a new way of forward propulsion that’s very different from traditional helicopter. So that sounds like the kind of thing you would devote a lot of developmental test research capabilities towards?

James Kirsch: That’s true. So we we partnered with industry for many years, and what we call the joint multi-role demonstrator. And in that we looked at these two new aircraft types that industry was proposing. One is a coaxial rotor aircraft, where you have two counter rotating propellers on top, and then what they call a pusher prop in the back, which is very new in rotorcraft. And then the other approach is similar to what you may see in the Air Force, or the Navy or the Marines with what they call the tilt rotor aircraft, where it looks like an airplane, but the engines and propellers can rotate so that it can take off like a like a helicopter.

Tom Temin: Yes, I’ve been under those once in the Marine Corps Marathon and you’re sort of running on your knees for a minute till it passes over and the wash is gone. Alright, so what are the current priorities? Right now it sounds like those three platforms are occupying a lot of time and manpower. What are some of the key developmental activities you’re working on?

James Kirsch: So those aircraft are now moving into the what we call the acquisition phase, where it’s more about doing competitions against prime vendors. And so we’re we’re investing in right now is the mission systems that will go on those aircraft, things like what we call aerial launched effects, where we are putting additional capability on the aircraft that will be launched from that aircraft. Think of them as unmanned aerial systems that can perform a variety of functions such as surveillance, reconnaissance or even attack, depending on what the Army needs them to do.

Tom Temin: That is to say they are going to be unmanned, but yet they have to have aerodynamic capability, leaving from something already flying.

James Kirsch: That’s correct. And in addition, we believe that those aircraft, not only while we’re developing them primarily for as an air-launched effect (ALE), they also have the capability to be launched from the ground. So it’s a capability that can also be shared with ground forces as well. But they give the aviation branch a much longer range and much longer reach to clear a path through an enemy’s air defense envelope in order to be able to get our forces into where they need to be to conduct the mission that they need to conduct.

Tom Temin: Tell us about what are some of the manpower resources that you have? What do people do? How do they go about developing or researching these types of ALE types of systems?

James Kirsch: So within the Aviation and Missile Center, we actually have about 3,000 government employees, and a little over 10,000 contractors, industry partners working side by side with us. That’s in addition to the industry partners, the major primes and some of the small businesses that are investing in the various technology. So it is a very large workforce, devoted not only to the aviation side of the Army, but also the missile side of the Army as well.

Tom Temin: And these are engineers, aviation scientists, I mean, what are some of the titles that are key here?

James Kirsch: Right. So it’s predominantly engineers and scientists in a variety of fields such as aerodynamics, propulsion, flight controls, artificial intelligence, machine learning, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, the whole gamut, essentially, of scientific and engineering career fields probably have a place here within the Aviation and Missile center.

Tom Temin: And that whole AI/ML area that’s really underpinning almost everything else that is mechanically and aerodynamically being developed. Fair to say?

James Kirsch: It really comes down to how much can we ask a pilot to do? And how can we reduce the workload on that pilot? And as we start talking about, as we were earlier, about air launched effects, and we’re putting even more aircraft into the air, how do we manage that? And how do they manage each other and how do they communicate with each other and decide what they need to do? A lot of that is controlled in terms of artificial intelligence or machine learning, because we simply don’t have enough people power in order to do that kind of work.

Tom Temin: And finally, with respect to the supply base, you mentioned that there’s a lot of contractors involved — 10,000 people — the big well known names in aviation and an aerospace What about the contractors that are considered non-traditional or maybe not even contractors but you feel they might have a future capability? That would need to be brought in. And you see these types of work being done across the armed services to try to get in those non traditional vendors. Is that the case here, too?

James Kirsch: You’re absolutely right. That has been a core tenet of Futures Command and certainly across not just the Aviation and Missile Center, but all of the Combat Capabilities Development Command, is how do we leverage the intellectual capital that exists in the United States? All of those smart people, smart companies, industry, academia that we haven’t traditionally leveraged? And how do we get their expertise brought into the fold? And so we do that through a variety of different activities. And really, that’s one of the reasons why this modular open systems approach is so important to us is we want the ability to rapidly respond, if some small business develops a new capability that we think is absolutely essential in an aircraft, we want to easily be able to insert that capability into an aircraft. We’re also partnering with our sister services like the Air Force, as well as DARPA and the work that they do with a lot of small businesses and academia. So that we’re leveraging a whole of government approach, along with a whole of industry and academia approach to solve the very challenging problems that face us. And let’s talk about missiles. So the big push right now on the missile side of the house is in terms of range and speed. We need our missiles to go much further, and we need to get them much faster. The whole idea is we’re going into an area that that is heavily defended, and we need to be able to reach out and clear a path for our forces to go in. And so a lot of our investment has been in supporting Army priorities in things like hypersonics. You’ve heard about the hypersonic missile.

Tom Temin: I’ve held some in my arms.

James Kirsch: Oh, yeah. Yeah. So that is that is, you know, one of the areas that we support, we are the technical lead for the thermal protection system, that is the material that goes on the outside to protect that missile in the heat of that flight and the environment of that flight. And so we’ve been a part of the hypersonics program for more than 20 years. It’s not a new, it’s not a new thing for the United States, even though it’s now getting a lot of press. It’s been something we’ve been investing in for a number of years. And that’s why we’re able to move things rapidly through the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office into the field is because we’ve been investing in it for a very long time. But even for our more conventional missiles, like the Army’s new PRISM missile, which is a replacement or an additional capability for the Multiple Launch Rocket System, or the High Mobility Rocket System. And that is a missile that has much more range than our current systems do, extending out to 500 kilometers or beyond, and providing new capabilities in terms of the targets that it’s able to go after.

Tom Temin: Right. So that’s really both ends of the missile that you have to develop, then? Both the energetics at the front end, and then the whole engine propulsion at the back end. So you’re really starting from scratch, almost.

James Kirsch: Not so much from scratch. But yes, we really are pushing the bounds and the envelopes of the technology, both in terms of the propulsion end of things: How do we get out there farther, longer ranges? As well as looking at the technology that goes into the front end of that missile to find that target once it gets there. One of the really challenging environments that we have, both for our aviation systems and for our missile systems, is we’re going to operate in a congested environment; that is, in an environment where the adversary has the ability to do things like jam GPS, or to send electromagnetic signals that block our ability to navigate. So we’re investing in what we call alternate methods of navigation that enable us to navigate and get where we want to go, even in the presence of those jamming environments.

Tom Temin: And does machine vision also become part of this too? Say you’re trying to aim for a blue barn that you know needs to be taken out, but they put up a red barn right next to it?

James Kirsch: Yeah, so that’s long been a goal is to be able to have the missile go out and differentiate between that red barn and that blue barn. We’re taking steps in that approach in terms of its ability to pick the target we want. Some of that is machine learning. And some of that is just providing information that perhaps we picked up in a reconnaissance mission that gives it a better idea of what it’s looking for. But yes, absolutely, artificial intelligence and machine learning play a big part in that as we go forward.

Tom Temin: And in this next generation missile, are you constrained by needing the same launch platform or is the launch platform also fungible here?

James Kirsch: Well, so right now, I would say we’re doing two things. So on the one hand, yes, we want to stay in the same launch platform because we have a lot of investment in that. And so that does place constraints on us. But they’re not constraints that can’t be overcome with the technology that we have available to us today. At the same time, we are also looking at, again, using autonomous technologies — think of it as unmanned ground vehicles, if you will — those technologies to enable us to modify our launcher so that not every launcher has to be manned. And if you can remove that man component that gives you the ability to put greater missile capabilities in that same launcher footprint.

Tom Temin: And how do you get here? Are you a program management guy? Are you an engineering guy? What’s your past?

James Kirsch: So my background is I’m an engineer, I started as an engineer, actually, while I was still in college, working here in the labs, and worked my way up through working in the labs, working over in our project offices on developing new systems and fielding new systems and then finally back into the management chain here within the Aviation and Missile Center.

Tom Temin: And do you ever walk the labs and test centers and take a look at what’s going on in there?

James Kirsch: Oh, absolutely. You know, it’s one of the most exciting things that I get to do is to walk around and see all of the really fantastic work that is going on with our workforce, especially our younger workforce, who are just really passionate and excited and have a really good grasp on our mission and are really excited about bringing some outside thinking into what is traditionally a government organization.


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