Army Aviation

Sustaining Army Aviation in the Future: Readiness in a Complex World

Aviation Maintenance / By COL Shawn T. Prickett and Mr. Tod L. Glidewell: Army Aviation is deployed world-wide with simultaneous missions on several continents in support of Joint Forces. To win, Army Aviation forces must provide the commander with multiple options, integrate the efforts of multiple partners, and operate across multiple domains to provide solutions while presenting our enemies and adversaries with multiple dilemmas. As we seek to comprehend the environment of the Army Operating Concept (AOC), we must remain cognizant of what our leaders have challenged us to accomplish. That is, “to focus on big questions and not focus on the small answers.”

Aviation Soldiers preparing vehicles for missions in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve / U.S. ARMY AMCOM PUBLIC AFFAIRS

Army Aviation must maintain relevancy as the Joint Force faces a strategic crossroads. After fifteen years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, budget challenges and manpower reductions are shaping every decision we make. Despite these challenges, the international environment is more dynamic and complex than ever. In order to ensure we can sustain operations in a complex environment we must ask ourselves some tough questions; questions that will lead to a better description of the challenges and drive unique thoughts about the future. While the big question may be; does Army Aviation fully understand the future sustainment operating environment to build, project and sustain the combat power necessary to support combatant commanders? We posit that the environment will require new thoughts centered on mobility, “smart” aircraft and maintenance actions, and maintenance/sustainment common operational understanding.

The Expeditionary Concept
The ability to rapidly deploy, build, and sustain combat power remains at the forefront of its unique capabilities. Yet, strategic, operational, and tactical mobility present challenges in the future. Reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (RSOI) may be executed across multiple countries and multiple environmental domains. To this end, Army must clearly define the expeditionary concept and we must become more self-reliant while leveraging joint capabilities to enable global RSOI. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that an expeditionary philosophy comes with its own set of limitations. While formations with greater autonomous deployment capabilities imply more equipment sets, specialized kits and outfits for strategic mobility it is directly contrary to the small size required for tactical mobility. Future aviation battalions must be able to move with our tactical joint maneuver ground forces. To be successful in that endeavor it is imperative that we consider a departure from the current operations to facilitate the freedom required for expeditionary operations. Recent exercises to austere environments have faced many mobility challenges and have sought to address them in multiple ways, but these training exercises have not faced an adaptive enemy with near peer capabilities. In the end, it is difficult to see future formations manned, trained, equipped or organized like a combat aviation brigade (CAB) of 2017.

Multi-Doman Battle
In addition to the challenges of mobility in support of expeditionary concepts, we should expect to face movement across and through what Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) is calling Multi-Domain Battle. Cross-domain capabilities must be developed to maintain agility required by the multi-domain operating environment. Extensive manned and unmanned aircraft modifications due to environmental changes will not be feasible in 2050. In the future, Army Aviation must be better prepared to operate in the sea domain for both temporary and persistent operations. We should consider obtaining the equipment necessary to fold and stow aircraft below the weather deck. “Marinization” for some if not all the fleet may be required if we are to routinely operate in this environment.

In addressing mobility challenges of the future operating environment other big questions include: What do semi-independent operations of an organization mean related to time and distance? What integrated protection options do we have to provide security of our formations in contiguous and non-contiguous environments? What missions can be accomplished through robotics or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)?

The future environment requires “smart” aircraft and adapted maintenance actions. Aircraft that are “self-aware” and can effectively communicate to maintenance elements across the battlefield to execute actions when necessary. These efforts manifest in many ways, but would offer key objectives directly related to reduce Soldier burden and the reduction maintenance activities to keep our aircraft in the fight.

Commonality must be a cornerstone of the future sustainment environment. This is not limited to the Aviation branch or Army. We must seek out common material and training solutions across our aviation platforms and support equipment across the joint and coalition community. Thus, finding ways to reduce, redistribute and share burden while creating sustainment opportunities within the operating environment. Where possible we should standardize platforms with open architecture to accommodate hardware and software solutions, utilizing reconfigurable multi-mission platforms, sub-systems, support tools and equipment. Additionally, we must reduce single source suppliers and unique equipment. Future acquisition efforts should provide opportunities to develop, compete, and buy common solutions from multiple sources to drive increased reliability while reducing cost and footprint. Going forward, we must understand operating cost, manpower, operational requirements and assess our risk accordingly. Commonality should be considered in a wide field of view, common fuel standards, common network interfaces, and common munitions just to name a few. Imagine a crew chief getting a singular torque wrench that is functional for every required action on every platform in the inventory, which reduces Soldier burden.

Challenges of the future will require Army Aviation to review current maintenance burden to create and optimize maintenance free operating periods and reduce scheduled maintenance. “Generation Two” CBM+ data analysis methodology and procedures provide an accurate impending component life and impending failure to increase the time on wing. Future systems should incorporate airframe fatigue sensing technology, prognostics and diagnostics that yield 95% or greater fault isolation accuracy. This would assist in reducing the Class IX burden as well as enable optimization of the Prescribed Load List (PLL) and Authorized Stockage List (ASL) standardization. To complement that concept, we should consider the development of 3D printing technologies with an endstate to produce a portion of our own bench-stock and to event portions of our prescribed load list (PLL). Visualize an expert technician at a staging base 200 miles away who can guide the maintenance action forward through virtual means similar to how a heart surgeon can guide the action (or even execute them) in an operating room in another country today.

As we evaluate the technology demonstrators provided for Improved Turbine Engine (ITE) and Future Vertical Lift (FVL) it will require an evolution of future approach to sustainment. The promise of high/hot performance and increased reliability of ITE coupled with a >25% reduction in energy consumption will have an immediate sustainment impact. However, FVL shows the greatest promise to affect change upon the aviation sustainment community and shaping future operations. But these ideas may not be far-reaching enough. Sustaining in a complex world needs “smart” aircraft with the ability to conduct self-diagnostics that inform sustainers what and when maintenance should be performed. “Self-healing” manned and unmanned systems may be necessary in threat environments where damage to the “skin” of an aircraft can be repaired with a can of composite material or a “patch” that grows to fill the gap. Lastly, UAS capabilities must mature for several missions, including being an option for getting parts to the point of need.

Finally, to truly reduce Class IX burden and make decisions on where maintenance activities should be conducted we must develop tools that incorporate the utilization of sustainment Common Operating Picture (COP). These systems must synthesize potentially disparate hardware and software applications to provide accurate supply chain visibility, real time inventory and self-reporting consumption rates of the fleet. This is expected to be particularly challenging in disrupted electro-magnetic environments. Future additions should include and incorporate the condition of the inventories by providing visibility of timely report of discrepancies (RODs), quality deficiencies reports (QDRs), CBM data and depot repairs to better understand component life. This would also facilitate visibility and feedback mechanisms for the force to shape product improvement while addressing maintenance procedures and training deficiencies. This common operational understanding must enable tactical to strategic decisions through better comprehension of the best choices to build combat power rapidly through the prioritization of limited resources in the joint and coalition area of operations. In the future operating environment, where does “global intelligence” and operations in the space domain fill knowledge gaps created by widely disparate sources?

So, does Army Aviation understand the big question? Are we prepared to operate in the current and future sustainment operating environment against a capable enemy in a challenging environment and with many unknowns? We cannot afford to wait on the perfect integration of aviation strategies that focus and orient our Army Aviation enterprise and partners towards increasing readiness. We must aggressively pursue solutions to these challenges at the earliest possible moment and seize momentum to develop the aviation future sustainment operating environment. The challenges are many, yet we seek answers in mobility, “smart” aircraft and predictive maintenance actions, all with unparalleled sustainment common operational understanding. While many challenges face the Aviation branch and the Army, our ability to sustain the capability that the ground Soldier and our Combatant Commanders need will determine our value to the future fight.

COL Shawn T. Prickett is the chief of the Command Initiatives Group; and Mr. Tod L. Glidewell is an aviation program integrator in the G-5, Strategy, Concepts and Plans, of the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Life Cycle Management Command at Redstone Arsenal, AL.