A conversation with Major General David Francis, US Army Aviation Chief

Here is a super cool conversation with MG Francis that Vertical Magazine did.


Vertical: General Francis, thank you for your time. To start off, can you give us your assessment from atop Army aviation of the force you command and how it is faring, given the high-tempo combat operations that are still ongoing?

Francis: There is no other light aviation force with the scale and the capability of U.S. Army aviation. It just is unmatched anywhere else. It’s in extremely high demand because in the history of the aviation branch of the Army; we have built what we consider a sacred trust with our ground forces. If they’re in a fight, we’re going to be there with them. If they have wounded, we’re going to evacuate their wounded. We take great pride and hold scared that trust we have with our ground force commanders.
As such, there is a huge demand, an insatiable demand for our assets. One of the challenges that has presented, while that’s a good problem to have, we are in high demand. That has put a stress on the force in terms of our training, our deployments and those sorts of things. We’re working really hard to put some mitigation efforts in on the stress that’s currently ongoing.

I would tell you that I could not be more proud of the men and women of Army aviation and how they operate and maintain this aviation force and that sacred trust all over the globe.

Vertical: For a while there was concern of an impending pilot shortage and with the training pipeline through Fort Rucker not being sufficient to supply the Army with trained aviators. Where does the Army stand on meeting its requirement for helicopter pilots?

Francis: Our senior Army leaders have resourced us here at Fort Rucker to increase the throughput to meet the Army requirement towards the end of this fiscal year. We are on a great path to increasing the throughput here.

The other piece of that is our retention efforts. The Army has had an increased attrition rate over the last couple years. We have put several tings in place to mitigate that. First, we’re increasing the throughput at the training base to meet the Army requirement. On the retention side, we’re working on reducing our personnel tempo by adjusting some of those training requirements that we have, particularly how we employ aviation at our combat training centers.

We’ve had an increase in aviation incentive pay that started in January of this year, which was the first increase in over 20 years for Army aviation. We’re working multiple personnel actions in conjunction with the Army Talent Management Task Force, from career timelines to how we assign aviators to make sure we’re making the right officer at the right place at the right time and that all of our soldiers, as well.

From a pilot retention standpoint, we think all of those things combined are going to help us with our pilot shortage issue.

Vertical: Shifting gears to the helicopters those pilots train on, namely the UH-72 Lakota, how is the health of the training fleet and what advantages have those advanced training helicopters given Army student pilots?

Francis: Our training fleet is very healthy. Right now we have every aircraft in the inventory here. The Lakota in particular is what is used as our primary, or common core, that’s the initial aircraft that all aviators come into and train with here. We’re in the final stages of fielding the UH-72 Lakota fleet and we’ll be at that number towards the end of FY ’22. We’ve been using the Lakota as a training aircraft here since 2016, so we have already integrated that aircraft into our training program here with no issues whatsoever.

We still do have some TH-67s left until we get our full complement of Lakotas, so we do have a dual track there, but no issues with the Lakota. Because it’s a glass cockpit, it has made it easier for our aviators then [to transition] to their advanced aircraft, either the AH-64 Apache, the CH-47 Chinook or the UH-60 “Mike” Black Hawk.

Vertical: Speaking of the operational helicopter fleets, every one of the models you mentioned is either in the midst of or preparing to undergo yet another in a series of capability upgrades and/or service life extensions. Completing all that work is a tall order for Army aviation, especially with new advanced rotorcraft already under development through various programs under the Future Vertical Lift umbrella.

Francis: We have one foot in the future and one foot in the present.

With our future fleet, or Future Vertical Lift, which comprises our number-one Army aviation modernization priority, which is the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft — which is integral to our future large scale combat operations — as well as the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft. Both of those programs are going extremely well right now. We just had a downselect for both of them to continue the competition. The tech demonstrators that industry has been flying have reduced risk by demonstrating technologies and capabilities that are getting us to where we want to go. We are very happy with where we are going.

Also embedded within Future Vertical Lift is a program called air-launched effects, which are small air- or ground-launched loitering aircraft that enable the ability to regain an asymmetric advantage and reach standoff protection and lethality required in large-scale combat operations.

The last part is the Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which will when selected replace our [RQ-7] Shadow fleet in the brigade combat teams and ground formations out there. . . . They are out in the field right now being soldier tested with four different vendors for a downselect at a future date.

Several other modernization efforts are also going on, [like the] Improved Turbine Engine program that will be the engine for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft as well as the UH-60 and AH-64 fleets, increasing their capability as we continue to do targeted modernization for that enduring fleet.

We’re always modernizing our aircraft survivability equipment, so that continues to be atop our priorities. Modernizing our munitions, including long-range precision munitions that will give us greater standoff in the future.

Vertical: At what point does Army aviation, from an institutional standpoint, begin transitioning away from training and fighting with the legacy fleet and focus on preparing soldiers to operate alongside FVL technologies?

Francis: We’re continuing to rewrite our doctrine to how Army aviation is going to fight with our current capability and well into the future in large-scale combat operations. That is an ongoing effort and as we bring capability into the force, our doctrine changes to take maximum advantage of it. We are always looking into the future as far as how we envision employing Future Vertical Lift as well as how we’re going to fight with our current fleet.

From an institutional perspective, as we bring in Future Vertical Lift, we’re exploring various options for how we’re going to introduce it. It comes down to whether we are going to train individual pilots and have them go out to train collectively in their units or do we do a program like we did with the Apache where we had a unified flight training program that allowed an entire battalion to go to a location and get qualified in the aircraft. Over about a year they worked their way all the way up through collective-level training and then they went back to the Army as a trained battalion, ready to go.

Vertical: Let’s get to the inevitable budget question. The Army has been very clear its modernization priorities — of which Future Vertical Lift is one — are protected from budget cuts. That doesn’t necessarily shield the rest of the aviation community from becoming a bill payer, as legacy fleets have been in the past. Do you have any concerns the legacy fleets will be cut to pay for modernization and how do you balance that equation?

Francis: As we bring new aircraft in, that’s an expensive venture, as you mentioned. However, the capability that it brings is essential to the Army’s ability to execute its mission in large-scale combat operations. In the meantime, we still have this enduring fleet of Black Hawks, Apaches and Chinooks with us well into the future. We can’t simply let those go as they are today. As threats emerge and technology becomes available, we will continue to do targeted modernization of those. It may be just a portion of the fleet that needs it. It may be just a bit of technology that comes, so it won’t necessarily be revamping an entire line of aircraft. But, we will do targeted modernization to keep the fleet relevant into the future to be effective in combat operations as we bring in Future Vertical Lift at the same time.

That will require us to continually make decisions based on the resources that our government gives us and that’s why consistent, predictable funding is essential to our modernization efforts.

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Nice article. Don’t forget to list your image sources!

It’s from Vertical Magazine.

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