A mixed bag - Defense industry gabs about U.S. Army’s plan for homogeneous FVL fleet

I recently posted a story to the website covering the U.S. ’s Future Vertical Lift () one-aircraft-does-it-all (mostly) concept. (See http://opsy.st/HS01gA)

Thereafter, I mentioned the story on several LinkedIn groups and asked for feedback on the FVL concept, hoping for enlightenment. The comments I received were indeed insightful and reflected a wide array of perspectives, many skeptical, some neutral or hopeful about FVL.

The comments ranged from references to military program hopefuls that tanked (pardon the pun) – or have drawn controversy – to the mountains to climb (engineering or otherwise) in trying to get a single type of aircraft to perform so many diverse battlefield missions.

Is history an indicator of the future?

I received several comments comparing FVL to other proposed military panacea programs.

One respondent said: “[The] Quad Tilt Rotor (), proposed four-rotor derivative of the tilt rotor, will offer significant logistical advantages by sharing common cockpit and engine technology and components. Commonality between platforms offers economies of scale to the Services in contrast to having completely different platforms requiring different engines, cockpits, training simulators, etc. One size won’t fit all and do all, but having rational commonality would be a big advantage to training, logistics, and support operations over the life cycle of the aircraft.”

Another respondent mentioned: “The Army has had several programs cancelled after they failed to deliver the advances that were sought. The program continued for 20 years before being cancelled. It suffered incessant mission creep and ultimately had become a small Apache. Its successor was the ARH, won by Bell Helicopter, but doomed more from systems development issues. Most of those issues were not due to Bell, but rather the Army’s lack of clarity about what they really wanted the aircraft to do. 
Until the Army has a clear and consistent definition of the intended mission and requirements, there is little point of procuring something new. Ultimately, it is no longer the platform that is the primary decision, but rather the systems that platform carries.”

And apparently it’s not just been in the U.S.: “[The] British government rejected such a programme in the UK in 2009.
 [It's] now gathering dust on a shelf,” commented another.

And a positive comment from another respondent: “Maybe not an ‘end-all, be-all,’ but Sikorsky’s comes [awfully] close – without all the problems of the V-22. It’s one impressive co-ax.”

What about engineering feasibility?

Can the engineers make the Army’s FVL dreams into reality?

One of the positive (mostly) comments I received was: “… There will always be some [military official] with too much brass on his shoulder wanting it just a little bit bigger, smaller, faster, etc.
 But there are ways to create core elements that can be made as modules for a variety of applications. If you want heavier load capacity, plug them into a larger fuselage. If you want speed and firepower, plug them onto a slender compact assault airframe, and so on.
 It’s not ideal, it’s not perfect, but it could be a lot cheaper to build, cheaper to operate and save lives in the battlefield through standardization and ease of production and maintenance.”

Another commentator gave a neutral stance: “I have been ‘watching’ attempts to standardize for years. Maybe they can standardize components and use a variety of airframes. [It's] an interesting engineering challenge, but if they don’t do a proper operational analysis first, it risks ending up as a wasteful failure.”

“The UK Blackburn Buccaneer and the French Etendard and Rafael were successfully designed for their respective navies and became just as useful land-based aircraft; generally speaking, fixed-wing aircraft do not adapt successfully from one environment to the other,” remarked another neutral commentator.

However, more skepticism arose from yet another industry member: “Can’t remember seeing a one-size-fits-all ever actually do that.”

“Always nice in theory, but never in actual application … this again because of environment, conditions, and the most important in my book is the way the various Services fight in different conditions, factions, and ideologies,” remarked another commentator.

Another industry member was doubtful, too, and said: “It is hard to imagine that an aircraft designed to perform all roles will do so anywhere near as well as those designed for a specific role. Although scaling the aircraft may keep the original outer [mold] line and look similar to the original, it will inevitably end up with a completely different structure and system set as numerous fixes get applied to tweak the aircraft. I think that there is good basis for multi-role aircraft where the intended roles are kept reasonably similar such as a tanker conversion of a passenger aircraft, but I think converting this to a fighter/reconnaissance aircraft is perhaps a step too far (although I wouldn’t mind being proved wrong!).”

And finally, another was mostly skeptical, yet wished the Army luck: “Massive compromises for just about all variants – How can a scout platform be as stealthy as possible, if the platform also has to out lift a Chinook? The larger an aircraft, the more power required, the more fuel it consumes, the more it costs to operate and maintain – the more spares it needs. So why cripple a light attack aircraft with the overheads of a heavy lift?
 The development costs of meeting all of the requirements for all variants will not realize the benefits in the delivered product. 
How big is the engine for a vertical lift platform [that] can carry the same load as a or a ? And how much fuel will it burn trying to carry that payload when it is not optimized for that role? How big are the rotor blades?
 Good luck to them, but I suspect this concept will burn up a lot more money than it saves!”

At the end of the day …

Lacking a crystal ball, the industry will have to wait and see what happens with FVL. Will it be cancelled because of potential for both engineering and practical application infeasibility? Will it be too expensive a proposition for shrinking defense budgets once specs are released? (After all, this would have to be one heck of a super-ultimate aircraft to put on this level of multimission-savvy). Time will tell.