UPDATED drone details HUNTSVILLE: The Army’s racing ahead on new manned aircraft and drones to prepare for a major war with Russia or China. Within “weeks,” the Army will announce, not only the top three contenders to replace its Shadow recon drone, but issue the official Request For Information on potential replacements for the UH-60 Black Hawk.
In fact, Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen told reporters here at the AUSA Global conference, the service wants to accelerate the UH-60 replacement, the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA). And it can move faster, Rugen said, while still leaving time to completely test the Sikorsky-Boeing SB>1 Defiant, which just made its first flight last week, a year behind archival Bell’s V-280 Valor.
The Year For Flora
“This is the year for FLRAA,” said Rugen, head of the Army’s aircraft modernization team. The Army is looking at “any and all opportunities” to get FLRAA faster, the general said — but it’s a joint program with the Marines and Special Operations Command, so the final decision rests with the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Pending that decision, the Army is already moving ahead on three official documents required to accelerate FLRAA. (Apologies in advance for acronyms). It’s writing up a draft Capabilities Development Document (CDD), it’s finishing an Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) this year, and it’s “weeks” away from releasing a Request For Information (RFI) from industry.
With a $20 million plus-up from Congress, the Army plans to do additional testing of both the V-280 Valor, which has flown for over a year, and the SB>1 Defiant, which has flown for less than a week. But the testing will wrap up this year, Rugen said.
Officially, what’s happening now is a technology demonstration, not a competition to see who builds an operational aircraft. But de facto, the Valor and Defiant have become dueling prototypes for the Black Hawk replacement. Rugen wants to officially start a competition.
But Rugen’s talking about starting the competition, not ending it. He’s not about to choose between Valor or Defiant. In fact, he wants a “full and open competition” that includes other candidates, such as a Karem Aircraft design now on the test stand.
Full and open is a worthy ideal — but as a practical matter, can you have a fair competition when one leading contender has 15 months of flight testing behind it and the other has seven days?
“Even though one just flew, we learned a ton on the lead-up to that,” Rugen said. ” “We know a lot about that lift-offset compound design already and it doesn’t necessarily need to fly as much… With S&T, it’s about knowledge and knowledge points, and we’ve gotten the majority of our knowledge across all the designs already.”
But as the program moves from S&T demonstration to competitive prototyping, the Army will have more to learn before it chooses a winner, Rugen acknowledged. “We do have more work to do once we bridge into the competitive environment to understand and downselect appropriately,” he said.
How exactly that works out is still to be determined. The Marines and SOCOM have a say on trade-offs; acquisition undersecretary for Ellen Lord will make the final call.
“We’re going through that process… It’s a lot of hard work,” Rugen said. “I think this RFI is really our next big step, and the rest is really things that are pre-decisional that we have to socialize at echelon to make sure the team is ready to move forward.”
That’s Army-speak for “we still have convince all the important people that this is a good idea.”
Drones, Scouts, & Weapons
While accelerating the Black Hawk replacement requires Pentagon approval, Rugen said, the Army’s moving full speed on the parts of Future Vertical Lift under its direct control.
The Army’s already contracted for two key weapons for its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA), General Dynamics’ XM915 gun and SAIC’s integrated missile launcher. The Army will buy both weapons directly and provide them to whoever wins the FARA contract as Government-Furnished Equipment (GFE).
The FARA program proper is still on the same schedule announced last year, Rugen said. That’s already plenty fast: The Army’s now selecting up to six contractors to prepare initial designs; in March 2020, it’ll pick two companies in March 2020 to build competing prototypes; and in 2023, there’ll be a fly-off and the start of the formal program of record.
The Army’s also doing five demos this year as part of the Mission Systems Architecture Demonstration (MSAD), Rugen said. The demos will inform requirements to be written this year defining a common, modular open architecture — a plug and play system to allow easy upgrades of all sorts of electronics — to be used across FVL.
There’s also three major drone initiatives underway. The Army’s doing two demonstrations this year at China Lake, Calif. — in April and August — of potential large Advanced UAS to replace the Grey Eagle (a Predator variant). It’s also working on small, swarming drones that can be fired from a helicopter, a concept called Air Launched Effects. The Army tested some mini-drones in Yuma, Ariz. last August and will launch two more as part of a robotics exercise in Yakima, Wash. in May, Rugen said.
The most advanced drone program is for a Future Tactical Unmanned Aerial System (FTUAS) to replace the Shadow. The Army has already conducted a “fly off” at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. In “weeks,” the service will pick up to three companies to provide two aircraft apiece for operational units to evaluate in field conditions over the coming year.
While requirements are still in flux — that’s why the Army wants to get actual soldiers’ hands on the competing drones — Rugen said FTUAS will be quieter than Shadow, not require a runway (Shadow does), and deploy in a single CH-47 helicopter, whereas a comparable Shadow unit takes two and a half C-130 turboprops.
The drone strategy is to buy what industry’s already developed, not to fund R&D on new designs, Rugen said. When it comes to drones, “industry is ahead of the Army,” he said. “Instead of spending developmental dollars, let’s go out and get what they have off the shelf.”
Updated 11:55 am to clarify Army will award up to three FTUAS contracts and that AUAS demonstrations will be at China Lake in April and August.