During the two difficult decades following the 9-11 attacks, the U.S. Marine Corps transformed its aviation arm. Aging CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters were replaced by far more capable MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors, which combine the vertical agility of a rotorcraft with the speed and range of a fixed-wing plane. Meanwhile, the Marines became the first service to begin operating the F-35 fighter, a multi-role strike aircraft that in the Marine version can land and take off vertically (similar to a helicopter) while remaining invisible to enemy radar.
While these revolutionary developments were unfolding, the U.S. Army tried three times to replace its decrepit fleet of scout helicopters, and each time it failed. The service finally decided to simply retire the fleet even though it had no replacement, turning the armed reconnaissance mission over to heavier Apache attack helicopters — helicopters designed to conduct different missions in wartime.
The difference of Army and Marine experiences in revitalizing Cold War aviation assets since 9-11 is emblematic of a broader divergence in their modernization efforts. No service has done a better job than the Marine Corps at innovating within tight budgets. It has managed to radically improve its approach to combat while claiming less than 10% of the defense budget. No service has done a worse job of modernizing than the Army, which has squandered many billions of dollars on programs it later decided to abandon.
A Marine MV-22 Osprey refueling for a night mission in Iraq in 2008. The Army exited the joint program early-on, and thus has missed the tilt-rotor revolution.WIKIPEDIA
In fact, every one of the Army’s top technology initiatives today is a successor to earlier efforts that were killed after considerable investment of time and money. As a result, the Army is still relying on weapons that came to fruition during the Reagan era — before the advent of the Worldwide Web — to wage war in the information age. The service has repeatedly upgraded and remanufactured those weapons, but aside from a handful of programs like the Stryker troop carrier, it has surprisingly little to show for 20 years of “modernization.”
The closest thing to an excuse that the Army has for this sorry performance is that it was heavily engaged in fighting throughout the post 9-11 period. It provided most of the U.S. forces deployed to Southwest Asia, and it took most of the casualties. It’s hard to step back and think about future military requirements when you’re already engaged in combat. The Army did a decent job of fielding urgently needed gear in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if that gear wasn’t suited to beating the near-peer threats on which it now must focus.
But the Marines were deployed in Southwest Asia too, and a lot of other places to boot. As America’s 9-11 force — the first responders to arrive in-country when troubles arise — they were just as distracted as the Army. Somehow, the Marine Corps was able to sustain its vision of future combat built around agile air power and a resourceful infantry despite the frequent effort of political forces in Washington to undermine its most cherished modernization programs.
So today, the Marines are poised to be the nation’s dominant ground force, even though they have less than half the active-duty headcount of the Army. In the case of aviation, the Marine Corps stuck with its plans for modernizing through hell and high water, while the Army couldn’t seem to stick with any plan for more than a few years. The Army’s helicopter fleet is still capable, but that is due as much to the debility of recent adversaries as investment in new technology. How it would fare in a fight with Russia or China is anyone’s guess.
Which brings me to Future Vertical Lift, the Army-Navy program that supposedly is going to provide a replacement for all of the Army’s Cold War helicopters. The basic concept of the program is simple enough — a family of five rotorcraft sharing common technology and equipment in order to save money. If FVL, as it is usually called, were executed as currently planned, it would fix pretty much everything that ails Army Aviation.
However, it probably won’t be. First of all, spending on the program is scheduled to ramp up toward the end of the next decade when federal funding is likely to be scarcer than it is today. Second, the Army and the Navy don’t really agree on what should come first; the Navy needs to replace medium-size Black Hawk helicopter variants deployed across its fleet, whereas the biggest gap in Army Aviation is all those missing scout helicopters. Without new scouts, it isn’t so clear who will provide recon for the other gear the Army plans to buy.
And then there’s the Army’s perennial inability to stick with a plan. As FVL is currently scoped out, full-rate production of new helicopters doesn’t commence until President Trump’s successor is about to leave office (assuming he or she serves two terms). Think of how many Army leaders will come and go during that extended timeframe, and how tempted each of them will be to tinker with the plan. The Army needs to start bending metal on new rotorcraft a lot faster, before it has time to change its mind.
Fortunately, there is a solution. The Army has been leading a “precursor” to FVL called Joint Multi-role that has already generated promising options for new rotorcraft. One industry team, led by Bell/Textron, has developed a third-generation tilt-rotor that is flying today. The other team, led by Lockheed/Sikorsky and Boeing, is proposing a fast and agile conventional helicopter. Either option would greatly out-perform existing Army helicopters in speed, range, payload and other key performance parameters.
What the Army and Navy need to do is leverage technology that industry has already developed to compress the schedule of Future Vertical Lift. The Army, in particular, could have a new medium helicopter for moving soldiers around the battlefield, or a new scout helicopter, in less than ten years if it just skipped the superfluous early stages of FVL that have already been covered by the precursor program. Why wait until the 2030s to bend metal when solutions have already emerged from a robust, digitized, competitive development effort?
Rumor has it that a team formed by the Army chief of staff to rethink aviation modernization has already come to the same conclusion: it has the data it needs to begin Future Vertical Lift in midstream at the engineering stage, rather than starting over. This could be the Army’s best opportunity to prove it is still capable of developing next-generation equipment expeditiously. Coming up with a successor to current armored vehicles may need two decades of investment before production can commence, but aviation solutions are in hand.
Obviously, the Marine Corps has modernization options the Army does not, since it operates both fixed-wing aircraft and rotorcraft. The Army only has helicopters. The Air Force’s F-35s would have to provide air cover in a future European war. But with a bigger budget and more focused aviation requirements, there’s no need for the Army to wait until mid-century to field replacements for helicopters that commenced development in the 1960s and 1970s. FVL needs to move faster, and Army Aviation needs to begin its own leap into the future.
I have business relations of one sort or another with most of the companies involved in providing rotorcraft to the Army.