Pilot or Not: Future Vertical Lift Aircraft Needs an Aviator in the Cockpit
The U.S. Army Human Dimension Strategy informs the Army’s approach to the joint acquisition process for programs such as the Future Vertical Lift aircraft. There is a potential that the requirement developers or the aircraft’s designers may attempt to replace the aviator in the new cockpit with remotely manned or even automated piloting systems. To follow the Army’s strategy, it is imperative to keep an aviator in the cockpit.
The Army’s latest tactical helicopter program of record began more than 30 years ago, before aviation became an Army branch. While the Army’s current generation of aircraft has served admirably in multiple conflicts over the past three decades, it is nearing its evolutionary end of feasible technological improvements. Our current aircraft designed decades ago will not meet the requirements predicted in the U.S. Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World.
The Army Operating Concept anticipates a complex environment in which our forces must operate across multiple contested domains—a task that will require capabilities beyond those of our current fleet. To win in a complex world, the aviation branch’s aircraft must increase range to span operational and strategic distances, increase payload capacity in high altitude and hot climates, and increase agility after reaching the objective to improve survivability. The aviation branch is committed to development of a family of Future Vertical Lift aircraft with a menu of five capability sets using the latest technology to meet these critical requirements.
Requirements for the five capability sets include speeds from 170 to 350 knots, ranges up to 1,200 nautical miles, and endurances up to 4.5 hours, all with self-deployment capabilities. The current acquisition process will only allow the Army to begin fielding the Future Vertical Lift aircraft near the end of the next decade. Within this time frame, we can expect leaps in technological advances incorporated in the aircraft to help the aviator manage these new capabilities.
Due to the complexity of the operating environment the Army Operating Concept portends, aviators will need decision-aiding technology and flying assistance in the Future Vertical Lift cockpit. Recent technological trends increase capabilities to our aircraft but add complexity inside the cockpit to handle the new technologies. Over the past two decades, this complexity tended to lengthen training time for aircraft qualifications, added time for aircraft startup procedures and increased the number of perishable skills such as finding the proper page on a multifunction display.
We must reverse the trend in which new technology adds cockpit complexity. New technologies used in Future Vertical Lift must lighten the workload of the crew to allow the aviator to focus on the mission and make critical and timely tactical decisions required to accomplish the commander’s intent. Smartphones are faster and have more technological capability than home computers did a decade ago, yet they do not come with an instruction book; they are intuitive to operate. Developers build Amazon and eBay websites for easy use without the need for user training or instruction. The new aircraft’s designers should follow this example. Technology should help the aviator stay within aircraft limitations without the need to memorize a plethora of numbers. To optimize an aviator’s performance, technology should assist or conduct aircraft startup, cockpit management, situational awareness, Mission Command, emergency response and shutdown.
Human Dimension Strategy
Capability developers must consider the human dimension when writing requirements for Future Vertical Lift. The Army published its Human Dimension Strategy in 2015. The strategy has a two-part vision for years 2025 and beyond, the time frame for fielding the new aircraft. The vision focuses on building cohesive teams of trusted professionals and optimizing the human performance of every soldier—including the aviators flying Future Vertical Lift. The Human Dimension Strategy, along with the Army Operating Concept, reinforces the necessity to invest resources in our most valuable asset: the soldier. We must build teams and optimize their performance to win our future wars.
To build trusted teams and optimize performance, the Army must develop its leaders. We develop our leaders through training, education and experience. The leader development process focuses on developing leaders able to outthink our adversaries through realistic training that builds cohesive teams. These same strategies apply to our aviator development efforts; our aviators must be part of a trusted team, and we must optimize their performance.
As technology advances, we must embrace it, train our soldiers to use it and develop our leaders to have the skills to implement it to our advantage. We must use new technology not only in equipment modernization but also in optimizing our aviators’ performance.
Trust Must Be Earned
In today’s commercial passenger planes, the aircraft system does more flying than the pilots do. Computer algorithms can replace a pilot’s checklist during startups, shutdowns and emergencies. A correctly written algorithm can reduce the pilot errors made during emergency diagnosis while flying. An autopilot system flies the aircraft from one waypoint or airport to another. FedEx, Amazon and UPS Inc. continue to pursue a fleet of unmanned cargo delivery aircraft. Unmanned technology exists, but aircraft designers, manufacturers and operators still must earn the trust and confidence of the Federal Aviation Administration and the American public before they begin to deliver packages in the safety of our regulated national airspace before advancing to flying in a combat zone with enemy fire.
Within the 10- to 20-year time frame it will likely take the military to tread through the joint acquisition process to take delivery of the first Future Vertical Lift aircraft, unmanned technology will improve. With these improvements, there are no technological or physical reasons the new aircraft cannot deliver cargo or self-deploy in an unmanned mode. However, some tasks are too critical to relegate to automation—these tasks require human judgment and the investment of human capital at the decisive point in time and space. Transporting soldiers or conducting air-assault missions in an unmanned mode are incompatible with the Army Human Dimension Strategy. Automation will not soon replace the skill of a trained pilot using judgment and intuition to provide critical information about terrain or the enemy to ground commanders.
The vision in the Army Human Dimension Strategy is to build cohesive teams of trusted professionals through realistic training. Realistic training is rigorous training that replicates the complexity of multidomain battle. The authors of the Army Human Dimension Strategy, soldiers and aviators all know that bonds of friendship and trust develop through trials of hard work and training. Aviators have supported soldiers during training and recent deployments to build this trust. Soldiers trust that aviators will be there when needed to provide situational awareness, decisive fires, extractions from dangerous situations, medical evacuation, air movements, and critical mobility of personnel and equipment.
The Army aviation branch’s vision is a professional, modernized aviation force focused on our ground forces while generating options for the combatant commander in any condition through increased reach, protection and lethality—adept at developing situational understanding to win in an ever-increasingly complex world. The aviation branch instills the importance of supporting the ground forces from the first aviation course to the last, the Pre-Command Course for battalion and brigade commanders. Aviators practice and reinforce this philosophy during training and deployments.
When troops are in the back of the Future Vertical Lift, the Army cannot build the cohesive teams the Human Dimension Strategy requires without an aviator in the cockpit to share risk, keep a sense of urgency and demonstrate commitment to make that team complete. An unmanned aircraft can aid in accomplishing a mission for the soldier but is not able to form that special bond required for combat. Soldiers serve the nation, its cause and the Constitution, but in the heat of combat, they fight for the other soldiers on their team. Technology flying a machine cannot replace this loyalty of one soldier for another. There cannot be a cohesive team between the soldier and the aviator without a person in the aircraft cockpit to form that cohesive and trusted team.
Reduce Pilot’s Workload
In accordance with the Human Dimension Strategy, the Army must optimize the human performance of every soldier. New aircraft using the latest technology and software must reduce the workload of the pilot in the cockpit to optimize the aviator’s performance in the myriad of tasks required to perform a mission. A reduced workload allows aviators at decisive points to employ all five senses and experience to make timely and critical decisions to ensure success of our ground forces, something a computer algorithm or even a human operator at a remote terminal cannot do.
Machines are useful for repetitive and predictable type functions; one can easily foresee an unmanned aircraft performing routine duties such as cargo delivery. Machines guided by software provide precision and accuracy that exceed human limitations. Software writers can write algorithms that can diagnose aircraft problems and implement the best procedures to solve those problems faster than an aviator can follow a checklist. The Army has a definite need for these automated capabilities in such an environment.
The Army Operating Concept describes a dynamic environment, one that is not amenable to repetitive and predictable functions where designers and users can optimize a machine to perform such tasks. Our adversaries watch our routines and devise detailed plans to counter predictable missions.
A tactical aviation mission supporting troops on the ground or carrying troops involves detailed planning on the ground and quick decision-making throughout the mission. A dynamic environment requires aviators to exercise Mission Command—understanding the commander’s intent and using disciplined initiative to accomplish the mission even when it is necessary to deviate from the written plan. Understanding the commander’s intent and using disciplined initiative in a fluid environment are not programmable functions. New aircraft must reduce the aviator’s workload to optimize the decision-making required to execute Mission Command.
Army Aviation is committed to the Future Vertical Lift aircraft even though the first one is more than 10 years away. The requirements’ developers and the aircraft’s designers must ensure the Army keeps the aviator in the cockpit during combat missions involving our troops. To implement the Human Dimension Strategy, we must build teams of trusted professionals and optimize human performance. Aviators cannot build a team when absent from the aircraft. To form this team, they must share the same risks as soldiers on the ground or in the back of the aircraft. To optimize the aviator’s performance, engineers must use technology to reduce pilot workload and assist the decision-making of the aviator, not replace the aviator when transporting our most precious cargo—the soldier. Only when we unman ground forces can we unman the aviation force that supports them.