WASHINGTON: It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better yet to learn from other people’s. On Friday, I watched three battle-scarred acquisition experts — including the admiral who turned the F-35 around — advise a young officer from the Future Vertical Lift initiative, who was furiously taking notes. The panel’s theme: how FVL, which plans to replace a host of current helicopters, can avoid the errors of past programs like the F-35. The good news is the single most important lesson-learned is one FVL is already acting on. The bad news is that FVL’s approach, at least by one assessment, still raises half a dozen “red flags.”
The panel’s top three pointers: split the program into manageable pieces, take advantage of commercial helicopter expertise worldwide, and get Congress on board from the beginning.
The Pentagon must split FVL into multiple programs, developing a different aircraft for each set of mission requirement. That’s the opposite of a single mega-program trying to meet everyone’s needs with variants of one design, the approach behind the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
“Start separate programs when the money is ready,” advised retired Vice Adm. David Venlet, who knows the mistakes made by the F-35 program, since he took it over at its lowest point. “Those separate lines will be easier to defend and manage and, I think, have a better chance of success.”
FVL is already on that path, said Lt. Col. Alison Thompson, special assistant for rotorcraft to Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall. The sheer diversity of requirements for future rotorcraft demands a split approach. FVL is looking at four classes of rotorcraft — light, medium, heavy, and ultra-heavy — which will probably end up as four separate programs.
In fact, Thompson told me and another reporter, there may well be five programs. The medium FVL is set to enter service first, sometime in the early 2030s, but “if you look at the medium class” — comparable to the current H-60 Black Hawk/Sea Hawk series and Marine H-1s — “it is very broad, and we already know there’s not one platform can cover that spectrum of requirements,” she told us. That means “medium” may need to be split in two.
Even within a given weight class, there’s the question whether a single program can successfully produce both utility and attack versions of a given design. “It would be very desirable,” Thompson told us, and the Marines manage it in the medium category with their UH-1Y Huey transport and AH-1W Super Cobra gunship, which have about 85 percent of their parts in common. By contrast, the Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk and its AH-64 Apache are entirely different designs, but, said Patterson,” if you look at the things any helicopter needs to fly — drive train, engine, communications — “there are lot of things you can have in common.”
What’s more, many helicopter components can come from commercial manufacturers around the world — an option not available for high-performance fighter jets like the F-35. ” Unlike the Joint Strike Fighter, Future Vertical Lift can draw from…a very robust global commercial technology and industrial base,” said panelist David Berteau, who served under four defense secretaries and now heads the defense industry program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, host of the panel.
It won’t be easy to take full advantage of the worldwide civilian helicopter industry, Berteau warned: The rigidities of the military requirements process, Congress’ “Buy America” laws, and the dysfunctional acquisition process all discourage or even prohibit companies, especially foreign ones, from working with FVL.
In fact, when a defense attaché in the audience lamented the lack of allied partners on FVL, especially compared to their central role on the F-35, Lt. Col. Thompson replied that it’s a little early. “We certainly welcome international partners to get with the Joint Staff on the requirements,” she said, “[but] since we don’t have a program yet there’s really no acquisition piece to start engaging with European industry.”
So, industry needs to take the initiative, Berteau interjected. “If I were industry, I wouldn’t wait for the demand signals to materialize from DoD [the Department of Defense, or] for government to government agreements to get into place,” he said. “There’s a lot you can do at the industry-to-industry level across international lines…. I would urge industry to look at that now.”
Industry isn’t the only audience that FVL must engage: Even more critical is to earn the confidence of Congress. “From the congressional side, you always feel like the department is hiding the ball,” said former Senate staffer Betsy Schmid, now a vice-president at the Aerospace Industries Association. “That’s probably the worst way to run a program.”
“You want the professional staff, you want the members, to have buy-in [and] to be your partner,” Schmid said. If Congress doesn’t trust you, they’ll impose reporting requirements, “fence” funds so they can’t be spent until the program meets arbitrary goals, or take money away altogether. Building such trust was something the F-35 program struggled with for years. When Venlet took over, Schmid recalled, “it was like a breath of fresh air[:] ‘Here’s someone who’s going to tell me what’s going on!'” But from what she’s seen so far, she said, “I’m not sure the FVL program has had enough dialogue with the Congress yet.”
It’d be great to “get a list of who to go visit on the Hill,” Lt. Col. Thompson said immediately. Given the nascent state of FVL, she said, “that’s something that has been missing.”
Schmid raised a half-dozen “red flags” for FVL, starting with its status as an “initiative” rather than a “program”: “Initiatives tend to have a hard time going from a great series of concepts to programs of record,” she said. Having “too many cooks in the kitchen” doesn’t help: The Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense are currently shepherding the “initiative,” she said, but they need to hand each actual program to a specific service to manage. Unfortunately, the lead service for FVL Medium, the first version to be built, will likely be the Army, which has the military’s largest medium helicopter fleet but also its worst record of costly cancelled programs.
Schmid’s fourth red flag is the program’s sheer ambition, with its four (or more) sub-programs. Her fifth is the long lag time before the medium FVL’s entry into service post-2030, which gives plenty of time for leadership to lose interest and technology to become obsolete. Sixth and last, but hardly least, is the basic budget problem. If sequestration cuts return in 2016, there’ll be little funding for any big new program.
“The hazard to overcome is the intersection of wanting to have it all…colliding with this world of constrained resources,” Venlet said. “That collision creates desperate people under extreme pressure to find something new — or believe something new will emerge that enables one to have it all for less.”