WASHINGTON: What is Future Vertical Lift? There is no one answer, but rather a range of possibilities. At one extreme is a single mega-program, building four variants for the four services to replace a host of existing helicopters, a vision in some ways even more ambitious than the long-troubled tri-service Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). At the opposite extreme, however, FVL would just be overarching guidance and common technology for a range of separate, service-specific programs, both new aircraft and upgrades to existing helicopters. The reality will almost certainly end up somewhere in between.

“We don’t know exactly where that sweet spot is,” Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas told me frankly. Thomas, a Marine Corps fighter pilot, is co-chair of the Pentagon’s executive steering group for FVL, and he’d just spoken about the initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The starting point is the desired capabilities [and] the desire to produce commonality,” he said, but they’re staying flexible about the end point.

“Eventually, this process will inform a new-build program, but we’re not there yet,” Thomas told me. Until then, he expects FVL to spin off technologies and ideas for upgrades to existing helicopter programs.

“The start of at least the first program has moved a little bit to the right, a couple of years,” said the other co-chair of the FVL steering group, Jose Gonzalez, deputy director for land warfare and munitions in the Pentagon’s acquisition, technology, and logistics (ATL) organization. “[But] one thing we need to keep in mind,” he told the audience at CSIS. “A lot of the Future Vertical Lift work — the analysis work that we’re doing and the technology work that we’re doing — could feed alternatives other than a new-start program. They could inform a major upgrade [i.e. to an existing aircraft], or there could be a CONOPS change” — that is, a change in concepts of operation not necessarily accompanied by new equipment at all.

“In the past,” Brig. Gen. Thomas told the CSIS audience, the military and industry have tended to think about vertical lift narrowly in terms of individual platforms: “It’s a helicopter,” full stop. In the FVL construct, however, the “air vehicle” and the “common mission architecture” are co-equal components. What’s more, it’s the latter — developing common, compatible, or even interchangeable mission equipment that can go into different kinds of aircraft — that may be “your greatest return on investment,” Thomas said, because it could simplify logistics and reduce operations and maintenance costs for decades to come. (This might well be a lesson learned from the JSF. Its software, computing power and sensors are the aircraft’s greatest assets.)

There are limits to commonality, noted Col. Kevin Christensen, an Army helicopter pilot who, like Thomas, works for the Joint Staff’s J-8, who handle force structure and resource assessment. “Laws of physics still apply, so the bigger [aircraft] is going to have a bigger engine and the smaller one’s going to have a smaller engine,” Christensen said. But the FVL vision is to design both engines so a single maintainer can work on both, without needing a special course on each aircraft.

Other equipment could be completely interchangeable. For example, Christensen said, “the avionics architecture ought to be plug and play, so if it’s an Army airplane’s at a Marine facility and a radio or nav[igation] system needs to be swapped out, we can do that.”

That is impossible today. When Marines landed their helicopters at his Army helicopter unit’s base in Afghanistan, “all I could give them was meals and a cot,” Christensen said. The four armed services among them have almost two dozen different helicopters, each with its own unique needs in terms of spare parts, training programs and the like. That’s fiscally inefficient and operationally cumbersome. “We haul 23 systems or so to a theater, each with its own line of supply,” he said.

Those 23 existing kinds of aircraft can be upgraded with common, interoperable equipment developed under FVL — up to a point. Eventually, an aircraft runs out of room, payload, or electrical power if you keep adding new equipment as “afterthoughts” to the original design, Christensen said. The “huge payoff,” he said, is to design commonality into new aircraft “from the very beginning.”

So FVL eventually does need to lead to a new helicopter — or whatever replaces conventional helicopters in the future.

There’s intense competition between Bell-Boeing tilt-rotor technology, as used on the V-22 Osprey and the proposed V-280 Valor, and Sikorsky’s hybrid rotor-and-propeller aircraft like the X-2, X-3, and the proposed Raider and Defiant concepts. And Airbus may well weigh in as the program’s direction becomes clearer.


“We have no idea what the actual design turns out to be,” Christensen told me after the public discussion. In fact, there will be several designs, each quite possibly run as an independent program — in contrast to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter approach. “Unlike JSF, where we’re talking about a program to do multiple variants of an airplane, FVL may be several programs of record,” he told the CSIS audience.


“There were a lot of lessons learned in terms of that program [F-35] and mistakes made,” Brig. Gen. Thomas added.

Like F-35, however, the FVL initiative must ultimately produce new aircraft to replace current ones as they reach the end of their useful service life. “We have a finite time,” Gonzalez said, working backwards from the expected retirement dates of existing systems.

“It’s not a matter of if,” said Thomas. “It’s a matter of when.”


  • @notrizzo

    JSF should be a verb/expletive, like “don’t JSF our helo programs”

  • Horn

    I really hope they take a good hard look at the S-97 Raider. A lot of potential with that aircraft. They appear to still be on target for a first flight by the end of this year.

  • Don Bacon

    “There were a lot of lessons learned in terms of that program [F-35] and mistakes made.”

    Ash Carter, recently departed the Pentagon, is good on that subject (its contracting aspects only) staring at about 16:53 in this video.

  • Araya

    I hope what the US DOD has learned from is JSF (F35) fails and not to forget the real total disaster called FCS (Future Combat Systems) of the Army how also has seek to replace all combat vehicle with one and also nearly unarmored basic chassis and finally canceled and cost the Army about 15 Years of time and money for modernization. The multiple platform concept is superior to the single concept, it not must be 23 different platforms but 6-8 should be the right balance. So for example the Sikorsky S-97 RAIDER looks to be the perfect replacement for the now killed Fleet of OH58 as like as for the UH1Z and AH1Z of the USMC and the V-280 Valor looks to be the right balance among a proved concept and new technology and should replace the thousands of UH60 in the Army and National Guard.

    • Horn

      (Could you clean it up some. Your comment is almost unintelligible.)

      I don’t think we will see a replacement of the AH-1Zs or UH-60s for quite some time. We are still buying newer models of these choppers and they are still quite capable. I do like that you are hitting on one of the core problems with today’s military acquisition programs. The whole point about reducing the number of platforms is to make production cheaper for large acquisitions and to ease supply, repair, and maintenance problems on the battlefield. The military hasn’t figured out that you can only fit so many roles into one platform, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” They need to figure out that balance, and soon. The JSF and LCS are prime examples of what happens when you try to fit too many roles into one frame.

      • LCON

        First JMR/FVL is intended for the late 2020’s with 2030 being the aimed for date of a medium lifter platform. Now in the case of a Rotary lifter most of the problems of JSF would not apply as the changes made for each mission are bolt on not built in.
        now for my take.

        Raider is To small to replace the any of the USMC rotary wing fleet. and it’s to light a weapons package to replace the Cobra. It might be a option for US Army Oh58 and a follow on for the Firescout.

        The Sikorsky-Boeing Defiant Joint seems the best option for a replacement fo both the UH1Y and UH60 Series. Valor seems fine but the Wings make it impractical for Ship board and C17 transport with out a complex folding system.

        Sikorsky-Boeing Defiant also seems to me the best point of start for a new dedicated Attack Chopper if the Army and Marines joint it and In this case I think they could. there missions overlap enough to allow it, and Sikorsky has already shown a few models of a X2 Antitank chopper in the past.

        Above medium lift is where the game changes. Raider is a light weight, Defiant is a Medium lift, but heavy lift like a Chinook replacement or Ultra class requires a Tiltrotor.

        • War Man

          What about AVX’s design? To me it also looks as promising as the Defiant.

          • LCON

            AVX looks fine,
            the boxy shape and Ducted thrusters would be a seller for the Navy and Marine Gator Navy.but AVX has no production lines with out a massive and costly government loan to open line for mass production. Sikorsky and Boeing have established manufacturing capacity.
            Next For the Army and Marine infantry the Conventional Lay out of the Defiant might be advantageous due to the ease of Transitioning embarking and disembarking training and crew ops form there UH60 and UH1

          • War Man

            Well, the manufacturing problem is a good argument against the AVX.

            As for the layout, it still has side doors, just not as big. Even then, most of the helicopters in US inventory have the same or similar layout to the AVX anyway so it can’t be much of a transition. Plus loading and unloading from a rear ramp is easier than through side doors, not to mention small motor vehicles can get inside the helicopter instead of being sling loaded.

          • LCON

            I stand corrected in my second point then.

          • B-Sabre

            The answer to that is really simple: AVX teams with (or gets bought by) one of the larger defence contractors (think LockMart or Northrup Grumman).
            In reality, modern aircraft builders are almost never manufacturers in the traditional sense – Sikorsky, for example, assembles the Black Hawk from components delivered from a huge variety of vendors. The cockpits are built by Kaman in Jacksonville, for instance. TAI in Turkey builds the tail cones. I think the cabins for the international S-60i are built in Poland. About the only thing Sikorsky keeps in-house as the ‘secret sauce’ is transmissions, which they feel is a strategic imperative.

  • mikedell