Army Aviation Needs to Own Its Mission Capability Future

Apache Helicopter

Judging by what I heard and saw last week at the Army Aviation Association of America Mission Solutions Summit (Quad-A) in Nashville, one thing was foremost in the Army Aviation community’s mind, and that was the budget.

Budget cuts and sequestration impacts are well into the double digits, and the R&D budget decline is twice the rate of these cuts according to the Honorable Heidi Shyu, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. This directly impacts Army Aviation ability to modernize and mature new capabilities that are needed to address key future needs.

And, a key piece of this modernization is new computing and mission systems capabilities. I would argue that Army Aviation science and technology needs to break the chain between advancing mission systems computing capabilities and new program or platform developments. Further to that, the development labs should endeavor to drive this innovation internally.

A great start

The Mission Systems Architecture Demonstration (MSAD) Mission Equipment Package (MEP) definition within the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator Program is a great start. But the effort could go further and apply to any and all Army Aviation aircraft. Although this was, in fact, among the objectives at the summit, it will likely become tightly tied to Future Vertical Lift developments and have a time horizon years down the road. Mission application development and computing capabilities will evolve at a different pace. FACE (Future Airborne Capability Environment) will bring interoperability to the application domain, but it won’t ensure optimal deployment on evolving hardware solutions.

BG Robert Marion, Program Executive Office Aviation, describes Army Aviation as an “asymmetric advantage for our nation without peer in scale and capability.” The contested operating environment will bring more challenges, and so the aviator is tasked with ever more challenge in the cockpit. So “the machines need to do the work,” BG Marion said. Aviator-critical needs require better and more computing capacity, and the airframe cannot afford to bolt on more boxes to get more capability.

The list of needs is long. It includes degraded visual environment operations, manned-unmanned teaming, integrated aircraft survivability, advanced targeting, ISR and other requirements. All these functions require advanced computing capabilities and systems—and now with high levels of security.

GE’s Intelligent Platforms business is always at the leading edge of current processing technology and computing for military and aerospace; that’s our business. But, most often, the mission computing developments, advanced architectures, and new application development and integration are tied to, and paced by, the aircraft program.

Blistering pace

So, the blistering pace of computing technology and architectures don’t align well when tied to platforms and programs—or the whole acquisition process, for that matter. Programs pluck the latest technology at the start of the development cycle and frequently end up having to baseline and lock up a design early in the process.  

Demanding open architecture will tackle some of this conundrum and the FACE standard will make substantial strides towards application portability, but evolving computing solutions will still demand a fair amount of systems integration, test and validation. This should be an ongoing process apart from the program.

Army Aviation mission solutions development could be divorced from aircraft programs to some extent and the Army development directorates and labs should invest in and own the core computing technology evolution, development and validation. They should employ the expertise, equip their labs with current state of the art computing solutions, plan to regularly update the capabilities as the processors, interconnects and architecture options progress, and have an ongoing integration of applications and relevant operating systems.

This will help bridge the gap between existing and newly developed mission applications, the underlying operating environment (FACE) and hardware processing evolution. It will help Army Aviation further elevate the machines to do the work. The aircraft ought to be able to deploy with then-current generation computing capability. And any capability ought to be deployable across multiple aircraft platforms—but the Army probably ought to own it to make it happen.

David French

David is the Director of Business Development for aviation programs for Abaco Systems. He started out his career as a design and systems engineer for space platforms and launch vehicle avionics. Impatient with the sometimes slow pace of new development opportunity there, he directed his energy toward the broader embedded computing universe from telecommunications infrastructure to defense electronics. He still marvels at the challenge and discovery in applied science and technology.

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