The history of joint aircraft is littered with failures, and when programs do come to fruition, they oftentimes are marred by schedule delays and cost overruns. Case in point, critics say, is the uber-expensive F-35 joint strike fighter program.
Even that hasn’t deterred the U.S. military from trying to develop aircraft that can be used by multiple services. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are all potential customers of an upcoming acquisition effort called future vertical lift, which aims to develop a family of rotorcraft scheduled to begin fielding in the mid-2030s.
It is yet to be seen if all of the services will buy into FVL, which is spearheaded by the Army. But officials involved in the program are taking steps to not repeat past mistakes, said Dan Bailey, the Army’s program director for future vertical lift and its technology demonstrator effort, joint multi-role.
“We’re doing everything from looking at legacy programs and lessons learned there to current programs like the joint strike fighter … that have some of the same kinds of aspirations and characteristics that we’re looking at,” he said.
Future vertical lift has not yet been established as a program of record, but the services already have created multiple joint organizations to help guide the FVL effort, from a flag officer-level steering group to integrated product teams that collaborate on science and technology, commonality, requirements and acquisition, he said.
The military uses rotorcraft to carry out one of four missions: attack, utility, cargo and reconnaissance, Bailey said. Instead of each service having its own helicopter for each mission, the thrust of future vertical lift is to create multiple rotorcraft with different lift capabilities — light, medium, heavy and ultra-heavy — that can be adapted by any service for many roles.
Program officials currently envision each FVL variant sharing a common airframe and avionics architecture, he said. They may also establish similar infrastructure for supply chains, training and maintenance.
The major difference between a Navy medium-lift FVL aircraft and an Army one will be the subsystems and mission-specific equipment on board. For instance, a pilot in a Navy helicopter today has the ability to listen to public radio frequencies, while an Army pilot does not, Bailey said. A future vertical lift aircraft would have the capacity to accommodate the antennas and other equipment needed for the Navy to retain that capability, even if other services don’t use them.
“When you think about what the Navy does with their [SH-60] Seahawks in terms of anti-submarine warfare, which is one of their primary missions, that’s a very similar mission … to an Army attack/recon mission,” he said. “They might need different subsystems to perform the task, which is the difference in terms of requirements.”