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13 October 2015

AUSA 2015: US Army Aviation Restructuring Initiative in Progress

As the US Army continues its downsizing through budget cuts its aviation branch is keeping to its own Aviation Restructuring Initiative (ARI), maintaining a positive outlook on future capability.

A US Army UH-60 BLACK HAWK helicopter crew chief, assigned to the Alaska National Guard, conducts water bucket operations during a fire fighting mission south of Tok, Alaska, 26 June 2015. (Photo: US Army/Sherman Hogue)

The US strategic policy to drawdown its force in Europe has seen units and equipment being methodically pulled back home. According to US European Command (EUCOM), the size of the US Army Europe has fallen from 213,000 soldiers in 1990 to around 28,000 in 2015 in seven major garrisons (originally around 850).

One of the most recent withdrawals were 37 UH-60 BLACK HAWKs from Katterback, Germany. They were part of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB), which is being restructured as part of the US Army’s five year ARI.

Twenty of the UH-60s have already been earmarked for service with US National Guard units: The Tennessee Guard will receive 10, the Missouri Guard and the Pennsylvania Guard five BLACK HAWKs apiece. The remaining 17 UH-60s from Germany were destined for the US Army Aviation Centre of Excellence (USAACE) Ft. Rucker, AL, as well as to Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras and the Army Reserve. Col. John Lindsay, Director of Aviation for the Army G-3 (operations), pointed out that no time or money would be spent to reset the helicopters: “They are not going to pause at any reset facility but go and be absorbed into their (new) fleets.” That is clearly a cost saving measure in transferring helicopters from one unit to another instead of going through the reset process. Lindsey stated that the restructuring of Army aviation was, “bigger than the transfer of aircraft from one component to another, which is often how it's characterised…It is fundamentally about optimising the capability of our formations in both the reserve component and active component."

Armed Reconnaissance - The Affordable Solution

The fleet retirement of the Bell Helicopter OH-58D KIOWA WARRIOR opened the door for Boeing’s AH-64 APACHE to add another notch to its gun belt, that of a mission specific scout/reconnaissance helicopter in tandem with UAS support. The transfer of an additional 192 AH-64s from the National Guard in order for the active force to prosecute this role has caused controversy and resentment within the National Guard, who must relinquish all of their attack helicopters although in return they will receive 111 UH-60 BLACK HAWKs. After being called to fight as integral units with attack and utility capability in Iraq and Afghanistan over more than a decade, the feeling is that the reserve force has had its capability sacrificed.

In what has become an almost continuous defence of the decision to shelve the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) programme in favour of an APACHE attack helicopter/UAS alternative, Brig.Gen. Robert (Bob) Marion, Program Executive Office (PEO) Aviation, said at the Army Aviation’s annual meeting at Nashville, TN, in April that while there continues to be a requirement for an AAS, it is a fiscal reality that while in sequestration the US Army cannot afford to buy a new platform for that role. He again supported the ARI’s plan to field an AH-64-UAS alternative that would meet the armed reconnaissance mission requirements. As he and those responsible for Army acquisition have said over time, the question is not about the type of platform, rather than how to continue to deliver the mission.

He was quick to point out that the confidence that Army aviation commanders had in recommending such a move was a direct result of experiences gained from a long period already invested in developing the capability.

We need to credit all of the work done in manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T). We are accomplishing that mission now thanks to a decade’s worth of work,” he said. “We did not know whether it was possible to even control a UAS from a cockpit (Level 4 control) during our early work around the RAH-66 COMANCHE programme [itself a $7 billion failure to conceive and produce a new reconnaissance helicopter] between 2002-2004. But we will now accomplish that mission with a SHADOW, GREY EAGLE, and APACHE.”

Operational experience of using MUM-T has already been gained by US Army aviators at two levels. The first is a Level of Interoperability (LOI) 2 (known as MUMT-2). This means that APACHE crew members can receive UAS sensor video streaming across an integrated multiband datalink across non-Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) bands. Additionally this can then be retransmitted to other similarly equipped APACHEs or to ground forces operating the One Station Remote Video Terminal.
The second, more complex system reaches LOI 3 and 4 using a UAS Tactical Common Data Link Assembly (UTA) with a range of around 50 kilometres. This now takes MUM-T to a higher net-centric level of operational capability. APACHE crews control the UAS sensors to increase their own situational awareness and targeting capacity.

An essential element of the US Army's Aviation Modernisation Plan, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.’s (GA-ASI) GRAY EAGLE UAS is an innovative and technologically advanced derivative of the combat-proven PREDATOR. Seen here in in manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) with Boeing’s APACHE helicopter. (Photo: GA-ASI)

US Army Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) at a Glance

The GRAY EAGLE and SHADOW are anchor systems in an Army UAS fleet that also includes the much smaller PUMA and RAVEN UAS, and the Army’s first UAS, HUNTER. Since 2007, Army aviation has flown more than 5.85 million flight hours in manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) scenarios, both in training and on the battlefield. MUM-T is possible due to the standardisation of video and data transmission systems between ground station control, UAS, and manned platforms. The manned-unmanned network allows manned helicopters to control unmanned aircraft payloads, and the receiving and transmitting of real-time video.

APACHE helicopter pilots are familiar with flying with UAS in the battle space, as PEO Aviation has fielded MUM-T capabilities with APACHE Es. Unmanned aircraft help to take away the unknown on the battlefield because they can fly out from the APACHE and allow the APACHE pilot to see over the horizon. MUM-T already brings several assets to the battlefield, including improved air-ground integration, increased operational tempos, rapid development of situations when engaged, increased endurance allowing manned platforms to action real-time intelligence, increased lethality, increased survivability by reducing the unknown about enemy force disposition, persistent surveillance allowing manned aircraft to focus on high payoff targets and reliable combat information in real time.
The team of defence contractors supporting this include Textron, General Atomics, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.

Levels of Interoperability 

(each level incorporates the capabilities of all lower levels):
Level 1: Receipt and transmission of secondary imagery or data.
Level 2: Receipt of imagery or data directly from the UAV.
Level 3: Control of the UAV payload.
Level 4: Control of the UAV, less take-off and landing.
Level 5: Full function and control of the UAV to include take-off and landing.

In March, the 1/501st Aviation Battalion of the 1st Armoured Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) became the first MUM-T squadron with Boeing AH-64D/E APACHEs and Textron Systems RQ-7Bv2 SHADOWs. The unit was reflagged as the 3rd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment.
"We are the first APACHE battalion to convert under the ARI to the heavy attack reconnaissance squadron," said Unit Commander Lt.Col. RJ Garcia. Co-incidentally the unit was also the first to field APACHE attack helicopters.

Typically the control of the UAS will remain with the infantry with systems control handed to the APACHEs when requested.

The unit had trained for its first foreign deployment to Kuwait at the end of August in support of Operational “Spartan Shield,” part of US Central Command’s mission in the Middle East. It will take 12 RQ-7Bv2 SHADOWs, which will team with 24 AH-64 APACHEs already in Kuwait.

"These are really exciting times for us, turning science fiction into reality almost," said Capt. Jeremy Paquin, Commander of the squadron's Bravo Troop. In preparation for the deployment the squadron has conducted four major training exercises since the beginning of the year.

After the SHADOW operators and maintainers trained together, the UAS capability was matched up with the APACHEs to fly together in the unit’s first tactical exercise, Operation “Heavy Shadow.” This was then followed by MUM-T exercises conducted with live-fire training where the SHADOWs provided laser designation for the APACHEs which were able to engage from a stand-off distance. The final over-water training was conducted at the USMC Air Station Miramar, CA, providing an element of maritime training and flying over the ocean with few, if any, visual references for the UAS controllers.

A newly formed Company B, 101st Aviation Regiment is the next to stand-up a SHADOW UAS capability followed by the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade by the end of the year.

US Army pilots, assigned to South Carolina National Guard’s 151st Security and Support Aviation Battalion, fly their UH-72A LAKOTA over one of the state’s major hurricane escape routes near Beaufort, SC, 10 June 2015, during a hurricane evacuation exercise where the helicopter crew provided air support to local, law enforcement and police, agencies and the South Carolina Emergency Management Division. (Photo: US Army/Staff Sgt. Roby Di Giovine)

Sequestration and the Need for Aviation Restructuring Initiative (ARI) 

While the size of the Army is decreasing to 490,000 personnel, Army leaders have already stated that further cuts to force numbers are still highly likely over the next few years.

Exceeding the financial allocation as defined by the Budget Control Act (BCA), which sets defence spending annually between FY2012-FY2021, would result in the need for defence wide sequestration cuts.

The President’s request for FY2016 has already exceeded the BCA cap by $38 billion and if Congress were to enact that amount, a sequester would be triggered. If this continues then the size of the Army in a worst case scenario could further decrease to 450,000 in FY17 and 420,000 by FY19. In terms of combat brigades, this would mean a reduction from 29 in FY16 to 24 in FY19. The Army leadership has stated that it would not be able to meet its strategic goals if the FY19 figure were to become a reality.

According to a report entitled “Defense Spending and the Budget Control Act Limits” compiled by the Congressional Research Service and published on 22 July 2015, some aviation programme cuts would be over 25% but this would be spread across all services.

Between 2015-2019 the cuts would be made in UH-60 BLACK HAWKs, taking 61 helicopters from the 410 required (a 15% reduction saving $7.2 billion), the remanufacture of 259 APACHEs would be reduced by 67 helicopters (26% reduction saving $5.6 billion) and a smaller reduction in UH-72A light utility helicopters by 45 aircraft from 1,005 (4% saving at $800 million).

The USMC’s rotary aviation fleet would take a large hit on the introduction of its new CH-53K heavy lift helicopter with a reduction of seven from a planned total of 13 (making a 54% reduction for a saving of $4.4 billion). The H-1 programme to upgrade its helicopters to the AH-1Z VIPER and UH-1Y VENOM standard would lose 11 helicopters from the 133 total (an 8% cut saving $4.6 billion). The USAF too would not be immune in terms of its rotorcraft, with a delay to its combat rescue helicopter programme.

The DoD plan appears to be protecting the RDT&E funding, in particular the Science and Technology (S&T) element, while focusing more on cutting procurement. RDT&E will suffer a 4% cut compared with 9% for procurement.

According to Gen. Marion, existing and potential Foreign Military Sales (FMS) will, “help the DoD to bridge some of the areas where we might have a gap in our production line, so there will be dependencies on FMS customers.”

Current acquisition lines (Category 1) sitting with the PEO Aviation office include the intention to build an all AH-64E APACHE fleet (through remanufacture as well as new build), the fielding of the digital CH-47F CHINOOK, the digital UH-60M BLACK HAWK, the UH-72A LAKOTA as the Army’s training aircraft, as well as the UAS programmes of the MQ-1C GRAY EAGLE and RQ-7B SHADOW. In addition, the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) remains critically important.
We have the most amount of ACAT I programs of any PEO within the Army,” said Gen. Marion. But the pressure is mounting on aviation to ensure that it can fulfil Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) while modernising the fleet and adhering to the ARI. "The requirements for our formations are not going down, but that OCO (Overseas Contingency Operations) money is going down,” he said.

Overseas operations now include “Enduring Freedom” in Trans-Sahara and the Horn of Africa, as well as Bosnia and Kroatia. This is in addition to existing deployments which continue in Afghanistan and Iraq, Europe, the Pacific, and Korea. And in those areas it should not be forgotten that the Afghani Army is still fighting hard against the Taliban; in Iraq and Syria the so-called Islamic State (IS) continues its fight to expand with local Iraqi and Kurdish forces requiring external support; Russia continues with its ramp-up of Cold War-like aggressive military patrolling and support of Ukrainian separatists; in Asia, China maintains its expansionist posture; and finally North Korea remains a completely unstable entity. Any of these regions could quickly have a requirement for aviation supported US Army presence or re-enforcement.

PEO Aviation officers all have modernisation programmes to manage for each of the Army’s helicopters within the ARI initiative. The fielding of the completely digital CH-47F fleet is not due to be completed until 2018 at the earliest. The Block II version is also seeking to ‘buy-back’ performance through targeted engineering, which is designed to increase systems performance while reducing subsystem weight.

Between 700-900 UH-60L BLACK HAWKs also need the modification of a digital cockpit to the UH-60V standard. This includes a digital map and common functionality with the fully digitised UH-60M allowing aircraft to quickly recognised and fly both versions of the BLACK HAWK.
The ambition for the APACHE is to have an all AH-64E fleet and comprising around 634 remanufacture airframes and 56 new build airframes for a complete fleet of 690 AH-64E helicopters.
As part of the ARI Airbus Helicopters’ LUH-72A LAKOTAs were destined to replace Bell Helicopters’ TH-67 CREEKs as the principle training helicopter for the US Army at Ft. Rucker. October 2015 will witness the first cross-over class with new pilots now training on digital cockpits instead of the old analogue ones of the outdated CREEKs.

By the end of the September, the Army will have disposed of over 200 of the 358 OH-58D KIOWA WARRIORs that had been in service. According to Col. Lindsay, all should be removed from active units by March 2017.

A US Army crew chief, assigned to 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, US Army Europe, observes a shipping port from the new CH-47F MYII CHINOOK helicopter over Bremerhaven, Germany, in August 2015. (Photo: US Army/Sgt. Thomas Mort)

Future Fixed wing Utility Aircraft (FUA)

The future Fixed wing Utility Aircraft (FUA) programme will focus on the ageing C-12 / C-26 fleets, the majority of the Army’s fixed wing aircraft, and should begin around 2017. Its aims will be to reduce training and sustainment costs and will be a COTS selection that will feature IFR capable and have communications, navigation and survivability equipment to allow it to operate worldwide.
The Army currently operates around 339 commercial derivative aircraft comprising 16 designs and 35 series. Their missions fall into three categories: Special electronic mission aircraft (SEMA), transport and mission support.

The fleet is ageing and while the need for organic fixed-wing aviation within the Army has been confirmed, it is envisaged that a mixed capability fleet will continue to be needed.

US Army Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) 

The Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) remains as one of the Army's most protected programmes though ARI and sequestration. It will replace the T700 engine (1600shp) family with a new 3,000shp turboshaft engine across all BLACK HAWKs and APACHEs. The addition of weight through mission systems is again a power buy-back initiative together with better fuel efficiency.

Explaining this Gen. Marion said: “If you look at Future Vertical Lift (FVL), the focus is on an attack and utility airframe in the near future. … We are not going to get to a heavy variant until later in the FVL cycle, so we have to do something today to meet the requirements. We are trying to stay ahead of the power curve when it comes to delivering that capability out to 2060.” This would be the end of the life expectancy of the old fleet as the FVL transition takes place from the 2030s onwards.

Future Vertical Lift (FVL)

The Army is continuing to ensure that funding is appropriated for the drive toward FVL (medium), the idea to procure a next generation helicopter that combines at a minimum both speed and range as well as hot and high (6K/95) performance. The path to this includes the Joint Multi Role Technology Demonstrations (JMR TD) set for 2017 during which Bell Helicopter and the Boeing/Sikorsky partnership will demonstrate their V-280 VALOR tiltrotor and SB.1 DEFIANT aircraft respectively.

One of the objectives within the FVL ambition is to maximise the use of common technology and parts which in turn will reduce training, logistics and acquisition costs. “We need reconfigurable, plug and play,” Gen. Marion explained. “We need common hardware so that we can standardise for common components, together with standard software interfaces so that we can take maximum advantage of multiple contracting and contractors capabilities so that if you weren’t the original designer we can still leverage the capability in the future.”

A Merger of Innovation?

Sikorsky has partnered with Boeing over the development of the Joint Multi Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR TD), the SB.1 DEFIANT. Lockheed Martin has offered its mission management system capability to both of the contenders, the other being Bell Helicopter with its tiltrotor based V-280 VALOR. This summer, Lockheed Martin has announced its $9 billion purchase ($7.1 billion after tax breaks) of Sikorsky. This now means that Lockheed Martin will partner with Boeing over the development of the SB.1 DEFIANT, which is in direct competition with Bell Helicopter’s V-280 VALOR tiltrotor, a platform in which Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for many of the systems. The DoD must be wondering how this will all manage to work out in delivering competitive, value-for-money systems that are not subject to incestuous contractual and development relationships. Perhaps this opens the door for Europe’s rotorcraft manufacturers to re-evaluate their assessment of the FVL competition. Almost as an after-thought, ownership of the long-running CH-53K development means that Lockheed Martin will now be in direct competition with Boeing in the heavy lift market, going toe-to-toe for sales against the well-established CH-47F CHINOOK.

According to Bell Helicopters, the Bell V-280 VALOR, Bell Helicopter's third-generation-tiltrotor, offers the US Army the highest levels of maturity and technical readiness. (Photo: Mönch/DPM)

Defining the interfaces and standards is key for us,” Gen. Marion said. “If everything started at the same time it would be nirvana. We have digitisation on all aviation platforms at different points in time. The plan in the last group of non-digitised aircraft is the UH-60V - that is our opportunity to try and build in standard interfaces from which we can move forward with a cockpit design to leverage multiple interfaces in the future.” He added that this the goal leading from JMR to FVL.
The emphasis for common architectural designs within FVL does not just make the aircraft system better, it also makes the whole enterprise a lot easier to manager,” he concluded.

The FVL programme aims at the replacement of utility and attack helicopter variants which will number around 2,135 UH-60 BLACK HAWKs and 690 APACHEs. Gen. Marion stressed that this would not necessarily mean one-for-one. “It will take us a long time to get to there fiscally. We will then take another look at the other platforms that are in the FVL family - heavy, ultra-heavy, and scout. At that time we will know where the next priorities lie.”

Marion acknowledged that there is no special funding for FVL programmes and that it must compete alongside other major platforms and systems.

Andrew Drwiega is a senior defence journalist and a regular contributor to MT. 

For more information please see MILITARY TECHNOLOGY #10/2015, available at the show at the German pavillion on booth 2115; and frequently check back for more NEWS FROM THE FLOOR.

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