US Army Aviation 2030 and Beyond

David C Isby provides details of US Army Aviation in 2030

UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the 2-10 Assault Helicopter Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, arrive at a pick-up zone as the sun sets over Fort Drum, New York. The air assault involved soldiers from 1-89 Cavalry as part of the 10th Mountain Division’s annual Mountain Peak exercise.
Spc Thomas Scaggs/US Army


Aviation – helicopters, fixed-wing and unmanned – represents the largest single portfolio for the US Army’s modernisation spending, with some 21% of the total. Despite this, disparate challenges are pulling its need for future aviation capabilities in different directions. Senior Army and industry leaders came together to discuss this, and what the future of Army Aviation will look like, in 2030 and beyond, at an Association of the US Army seminar in Washington on September 7.

Making Army Aviation capable of winning – indeed, surviving – in combat against a nearpeer competitor such as Russia or China has to be reconciled with the continued need for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Investment in legacy fleets – the Boeing AH-64 Apache attack, Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk transport and Boeing CH-47 Chinook medium lift helicopters – takes money away from the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme that has the potential – years from now – to provide the US military with its first cleansheet rotary-wing designs since the 1970s. Helicopter upgrades and improvements in tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) are a priority for units being asked to carry out increasingly difficult missions, but these all take time and money to implement.

With these differing requirements, the Army has lagged in meeting the rapid change required by the increasing international tensions on NATO’s borders, in northeast Asia and in the South China Sea. Director of Force Development for the US Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff (G-8), Major General John George, passed a hard judgement on US Army Aviation: “We have not modernised for full spectrum warfare.”

How Army Aviation decides to meet these problems will have international impact. Brigadier General John Evans, Commanding General, United States Army Special Operations Aviation Command, said: “International engagement is our number one thing. We have got to seek out active partnership at all levels. We have partners that want to contribute.” Chuck Dabundo, Boeing’s Vice-President responsible for the Chinook programmes, said that his helicopter, operating in 20 countries worldwide, benefits from the “ability for us to leverage funding from US or international customers to develop technology and push it back out.” While the Army and other operators are enthusiastic about international cooperation at all levels this is not shared throughout the US government. Vice-President at Sikorsky Aircraft, Chris van Buiten, said: “Revolutionary technology comes under stringent ITAR [International Trade in Arms Regulations] control. Even with trusted partners, export controls on industry make it very difficult.”

Force under stress

Some 88% of Army Aviation’s force structure is currently committed. Commanding General of the Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker Alabama, Major General William Gayler said: “The 16th CAB [Combat Aviation Brigade] and parts of the 3rd and 4th CAB are in Afghanistan. The 10th CAB and elements from the 1st Armored Division CAB are in Europe, operating from Estonia to Romania.” Currently, the 10th CAB has aircraft flying in four different theatres.

Other CABs are responding to a wide range of tasking. In the first week of humanitarian relief in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, just one of the units involved, Texas Army National Guard’s 36th CAB, carried out 475 live hoist rescues plus countless evacuation and resupply fiights.

AH-64E Apache helicopters, assigned to the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, 7th Infantry Division, at the Yakima Training Center, Washington during a battalion-sized live-fire exercise.
Captain Brian Harris/US Army

While in 1991 the US Army had some 9,000 helicopters, today it must carry out its missions with fewer than 4,000. More troubling, Gayler said is that the modernisation budget has come down 42% since 2012. As a result, he sees little room for modernisation in the future beyond what is already planned for and budgeted.

Despite these problems, the Army is succeeding in sustaining readiness. While the Air Force is facing a well-publicised shortfall in fighter pilots, the Army has no shortage in pilot capacity, and currently has 110% of its authorised strength in aviators. Commanding General of the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command, Major General Douglas Gabram said that currently the FMC [full mission capable] rate for Apaches is 71%, Black Hawks 75% and Chinooks 77%. That is fleet wide; deployed units have higher numbers.”

Of helicopters that are non-mission capable, Major General Gabram said: “Five percent are down for [lack of] parts, 20–25% are down for maintenance. This fluctuates, as it has for many years. For supply availability, 100% is our mission [goal]. Today, it is 85%. Six months ago, that figure was in the 70s. There are currently 4,600 back orders in aviation. Six months ago, there were about 7,000.”

The Army worked with the Defense Logistics Agency and the original equipment manufacturers to improve supply capability.

Facing the hard threats

Brigadier General Frank Tate, Director of Army Aviation in the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff in Washington DC, recently returned from a tour of duty on NATO’s eastern boundaries, where he was chief of operations for the Multinational Corps Northeast. There, he said he learned: “Neither the US Air Force nor the combined NATO air forces are going to be capable, alone, of defeating an A2AD [anti-access/aerial denial] umbrella in the rapid manner we would need. If we are going to pierce the umbrella, it requires a multidomain multicomponent team, with Army Aviation playing a critical and significant role.”

To do this, Tate said, both US Army Aviation and its NATO allies need to “change TTPs, in some cases, back to what they were in previous years: terrain masking, terrain fiight and all the things older aviators grew up with. This puts a tremendous burden on our training, but it is something we have to get after.” Brigadier General Tate also said that while improved countermeasures enabled US and coalition helicopters to operate at higher altitudes in Iraq and Afghanistan, faced with the sophisticated air defence threats that would be encountered in Eastern Europe, “we need to get back low for emerging threats”.

A crew chief assigned the 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade communicates with soldiers from 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team before connecting an M1114 Up-Armoured Humvee to the belly of a CH-47F Chinook helicopter during a sling load training event at Saunders pick-up zone on Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Sgt Steven Galimore/US Army

Tate’s concerns about threats to NATO helicopters are not limited to surface-toair missiles. They also include long-range surface-to-surface missiles, such as Russia’s SS-26 Iskander: “That would extend out how far away aviation assembly areas can exist for maintenance. We need to make distances substantially greater. We have got to think about FARRPs [forward area refuel rearm points]; 10,000 gallon FARRPs stuck in the same place for years are not going to work. All have to be highly mobile without running out of gas and getting stuck somewhere on the battlefield. The enemy will seek to take away our precision navigation and timing capability. We have got to be able to operate in a GPS-denied environment. Electromagnetic pulse effects from tactical nuclear weapons are becoming increasingly important in our age of digital systems, including fly-by-wire aircraft controls.

“Even though we have to operate in contested environments, when we have control of the air, we are very effective in what we do on the ground.” Operating in the face of improving threats is a major concern of Brigadier General Evans, “targeting infiltration methods for US SOF [special operation forces]” has been a priority to counter such threats. Evans needs to be able to insert “crisis responders that have the ability, means and resources to get there first before we close with decisive forces. It will take time to get decisive manoeuvre forces to the fight.” Despite growing threats, US Army special operations helicopters “are going to go deep. We are going to penetrate IADS [integrated air defence systems]. We have to work on ways to reduce signatures.” The lessons of years of combat unopposed by sophisticated air defence threats have meant as Evans said: “Too often we have people that go for their radio button. We have to work on signature reduction. It is more of a training thing. We have to learn and be adaptive: learn what the enemy is doing and adapt ways to stay ahead of their decision cycle. Right now, we work [relying] on SOPs [standard operating procedures] and tend to be in lockstep, as we have had the luxury of adhering to them without worrying what the enemy will do.”

CH-47F Chinooks from B Company, 2-149th General Support Aviation Battalion, Task Force Saber, undergo maintenance and inspections at Erbil, Iraq.
Captain Stephen James/US Army
US Army ground crew assigned to Task Force Tigershark, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, 7th Infantry Division load a Hydra 70 rocket for a mission at Jalalabad Airfield, Afghanistan.
Captain Brian Harris/US Army

Discussing today’s threat, US Army Aviation’s Director of Capability Development and Integration, Colonel Thomas von Eschenbach pointed out: “There is no jammer on an AH-64.” Rather, US Army Aviation and its allies need “not focus on the material solution we once used, but rather think with less money how can we deliver capabilities?” Eschenbach sees part of the answer as training: “We do not need new material solutions to train in the art of how to operate in an A2AD environment. Training is the key ingredient for success, much as we would like material solutions.” He gave multidomain, multifunctional electronic warfare (EW) as an example: “EW is not something we have normally done, but it is something we must do, something we have to figure out how to integrate and employ.

US Army Soldiers assigned to Task Force Warhawk, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, 7th Infantry Division refuel an AH-64 Apache helicopter in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan.
Captain Brian Harris
A UH-60 Black Hawk piloted by soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 185th Aviation Regiment based at Tupelo, Mississippi lift off with a water bucket attached while conducting water bucket training and certification at Gjakova Airfield, in western Kosovo.
SSgt Nicholas Farina/US Army

“Unmanned systems are heavily vulnerable to A2AD. They have to be more survivable and more manoeuvrable.”

In addition, Major General Gayler is concerned about the threat posed by high-technology EW to Army Aviation’s manned-unmanned teaming that relies on digital datalink connections between AH-64 Apaches and RQ-7 Shadow and MQ-1 Gray Eagle unmanned air vehicles. He said: “With some EW threats, no ones and zeros [meaning computer code] will be going through the airwaves.”

Material solutions may potentially cost a lot of money and take a long time to deploy through the Army’s helicopter fleet. Gayler said: “A system that can see terrain, obstacles, emitters and hostile force so we can fly in a survivable way at tactical altitudes would be incredibly expensive.”

Today, he said, “Fifty-eight percent of the budget is wrapped up in the Apache and Black Hawk helicopters; we don’t have money until we buy all our Apaches and all our Black Hawks.” Brigadier General Thomas Todd, the Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation, sees the key limitation as Army Aviation’s continuously aging aircraft fleet. He said: “In excess of 5,000 of the Army’s aircraft were designed mainly in the 1960s and 1970s. We are starting to hit the physical boundaries with what can be achieved with current platforms.”

Upgrading today’s helicopters

Material solutions for US Army Aviation – affecting international users of US-built helicopters – fall into three basic categories. First is near-term upgrade to current helicopters; second is upgrading to keep them operational for decades to come; and third is the emerging technologies, ones that will be demonstrated soon and eventually incorporated into the FVL programme, one that aims to achieve an order of magnitude improvement in performance and capabilities with the potential of game-changing technology.

Near-term upgrades include the sensors mounted in the Apache’s stabilised chin turret. The current Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sight includes integrated pilotage, day and night sensors. Lockheed Martin’s Modernized Day Sensor Assembly, which is replacing the current day sensor, has entered production. Deliveries will begin in May 2018. The current Apache turret will be replaced by the new Lockheed Martin High Reliability Turret, designed around ten line-replaceable units for ease of maintenance and upgrading. It is currently under development. Production is planned to begin in 2018, with first deliveries in 2020.

Maintaining operational viability

On July 27, the Army announced an engineering and manufacturing development contract to Boeing for its Block II Chinook upgrade. The Block II configuration includes provisions for retrofitting a more powerful engine such as the Future Affordable Turbine Engine, an advanced drive train capable of accommodating such an engine, and the advanced Chinook rotor blade, which incorporates improved-design for fuel cells.

The Bell Helicopter V-280 JMR TD aircraft at the Amarillo Texas facility in September 2017.
Bell Helicopter

The Army plans up upgrade its current force of CH-47Fs and MH-47Gs – over 500 helicopters – to Block II configuration to allow them to continue in service until 2060. Boeing expects to start work on the first Block II Chinook at its facility in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania in 2018. Flight-testing will start in 2019 with the first deliveries following in 2023.

The most significant component of the upgrade will be the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP), designed to replace the current General Electric T700 series engines in Apaches and Black Hawks. The ITEP restores performance that has been eroded by heavier full-up weight of the helicopters, caused by the carriage of additional equipment, providing improved power, range, payload, fuel efficiency and the ability to operate in high and hot conditions.

Brigadier General Todd said: “ITEP is the number one short-term priority and doubles our capability. ITEP is a programme in which we got the science and technology goals right.”

On August 22, the US Army awarded ITEP contracts to the Advanced Turbine Engine Company (a joint venture between Pratt & Whitney and Honeywell) and GE Aviation. Each will design an engine as part of ITEP’s technology maturation and risk reduction phase. A preliminary design review is scheduled for FY2018, along with transition to the engineering and manufacturing development phase. The Army plans to down select to one design, with testing starting in FY2021. Low-rate initial production is planned to start in FY2024, followed by full-rate production, possibly starting in FY2026 marking the start of a long, and expensive process of fitting new engines into the US Army’s legacy fleets.

Future Vertical Lift

Speaking about the FVL programme, Brigadier General Tate said: “The FVL is still the best solution for Army Aviation, part of a modernisation plan that embraces reality, enables incremental improvements and addresses obsolescence within the legacy fleets.”

Commanding General of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, at Fort Benning Georgia Major General Eric Wesley said: “The next generation of rotorcraft – embodied by the FVL programme – need to be developed from the ground up with a common architecture to be the brain of the systems, with a common baseline backbone.”

The Joint Multi-Role (JMR) Technology Demonstrator (TD) programme, intended to get FVL-applicable technology flying, is progressing. On September 6, Bell Helicopters announced that its V-280 Valor tilt-rotor had completed construction and would turn its rotors soon, followed by flight testing which will commence within months. The other JMR TD, the SB-1 Defiant, a rigidrotor, coaxial compound helicopter produced by the Boeing-Sikorsky team, will fly in 2018.

Brigadier General Tate sees the JMR TDs as important to bring the FVL into service on-time and on-budget. He said: “We are working with industry on low-cost technology demonstrators, which we will see flying in coming years to demonstrate the validity of leap-ahead technologies. Then, we can address capability gaps informed by a flying demonstrator, you close in on actual requirements and put them out to industry, knowing what is obtainable to get an actual product on the street and reforming the requirements process to do it much faster.”

A US Army Reserve CH-47 Chinook helicopter crew chief deployed with Task Force Warhawk, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, 7th Infantry Division supervises loading in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Captain Brian Harris
An illustration of the Sikorsky-Boeing Defiant JMR TD aircraft.
Lockheed Martin

Brigadier General Todd agreed: “We can crash the schedule, not wait for JMR to be complete until we start the next phase. Heel to toe is not agile. If we are told to move out on FVL, we are ready to move out and take TDs to the next step, allow educated users to kick tyres and make decisions and proceed to EMD [engineering and manufacturing development phase] in the mid-2020s, with rapid production following.”

Whether there will be money to do this, while continuing to procure, upgrade and operate the legacy fleets, remains uncertain.

However, FVL may not be the only new US Army rotorcraft. Brigadier General Evans said he has a compelling requirement for a small assault helicopter that can insert SOF teams into large urban areas but stressed the type would not be a scout. “We don’t do recon [reconnaissance] with our small helicopters.”

That point is something Colonel von Eschenbach regrets: “Unmanned systems mitigate the retirement of the [Bell OH-58D] Kiowa Warrior, but do not fill the gap.”

Major General Gayler agrees: “The most critical gap right now for the Army is a light, armed reconnaissance helicopter that has the ability to fight forward.”

An uncertain future

Importantly, Army Aviation is aware of the challenges it faces. It is looking at a range of solutions, but, as ever, the largest single root cause of problems remains solutions. The Army was able to do what Congress has prevented the Air Force from doing, save money for modernisation by retiring all of an aircraft type: in this case, the Kiowa Warrior. This did not provide an answer.

Under current planning, Army Aviation in 2030 will rely on the same Apache, Black Hawk and Chinook airframes that are flying today. These will be upgraded. The Apaches will all be AH-64Es in Block 6 or later configuration (equipped with the NATOstandard Link 16 datalink), all the Black Hawks will have digital cockpits and the Chinooks will be Block IIs. Possibly, the FVL will be in service.

Relying on investment in the FVL to produce operational capabilities is overshadowed by memories of the Army’s Comanche helicopter and Future Combat System armoured vehicle programmes. Both were developed to death by the Army, with many years and a tremendous amount of money spent yet failing to produce operational capabilities.

Other aspects of the 2030 force are harder to predict. Advances in areas such as autonomy and artificial intelligence may be hard to integrate with the legacy fleets. The ITEP might not be the only new engine. Helicopters will be armed with improved weapons. There will almost certainly be new UAVs and new approaches to the mannedunmanned teaming concept. There may even be a new light helicopter design that is not currently planned.

The sheer size of US Army Aviation – some 5,000 aircraft – means decisions made about its future will have worldwide impact. Currently, decisions have been made to try and balance competing, if not contradictory, priorities. How much time will be available to implement these priorities before an external event – a new, more dangerous war, a renewed economic downturn or unexpected political changes in the United States – remains uncertain.