Centers of Excellence: A Better Way

By By Douglas Nelms | July 1, 2010

Virtually every rotary wing aircraft currently operated by the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps is based on airframes and technology dating back at least 30 years, with some such as the UH-1, OH-58, OH-6, CH-47, CH-46 and CH/MH-53 being Vietnam-era. Both the UH-60 and AH-64 Apache go back to the 1970s and even the newest addition to the Army’s helicopter inventory, the UH-72A, is a military version of the Eurocopter EC145, which was based on the BK-117 that first flew in 1979. Only the V-22 is less than 30 years old, and it was developed in the mid-1980s.

These multi-mission MH-60R Sea Hawk variants have many improvements, such as glass cockpits, improved mission systems, new sensors and advanced avionics. But they are still derivatives of a 1970s design. U.S. Navy photo/Renfroe

The models flying today are simply “new and improved” versions of very old aircraft.


This means that over the next 20 to 30 years, serious consideration has to be made to determine not only what rotary-wing aviators will be flying, but what paths the services need to take to get there. According to the Naval Aviation Center for Rotorcraft Advancement (NACRA), investments in key technologies must be made now through 2011 to put new aircraft into service in the 2027–2030 timeframe.
To meet that need, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC),, in its 2005 report to Congress, directed that the services develop “Centers of Excellence” for rotary-wing development and acquisition. As a result, in 2008 the Navy/USMC, thru NAVAIR, created NACRA based at Patuxent River NAS, while the Army created the Aviation Technology Center of Excellence (ATCoE) as part of the Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM) at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. The goal, as defined by NACRA, is to identify and execute “common focus and leveraged efforts across [rotorcraft] programs,” and “build coalitions and define future paths across services, government agencies, industry [and] academia.”

The ATCoE defined its mission as being to “Establish an Aviation Land Based Vertical Lift and Unmanned Air System Research, Development, Acquisition, Test, Evaluation and Sustainment (RDATES) Center of Excellence to assist all partners in meeting their unit/agency present and future missions through collaboration, sharing, teaming and partnering. Partners include Homeland Security, DoD, industry and academia.”

Douglas Isleib, director of NACRA, said that the first year was spent looking at the issues that these centers of excellence could influence. These were issues of “execution, costs and schedule, what was already in the stovepipe, what we thought we could bring to the fight and where we could provide some help in leveraging efforts across programs or even cross services, or industry or civil operators,” Isleib said. “If things are being done where the program managers and their staff have their heads down executing their programs, we could be looking across the boundaries and trying to determine easier paths toward getting things done.”

The first specific initiative NACRA developed was primarily tactically oriented—three “cross-platform” projects covering all the rotorcraft in the USN/USMC inventory. These consisted of developing a road-mapping process primarily to define and establish common approaches to cross-platform requirements, a condition based maintenance (CBM) program for all USN/USMC rotorcraft, and a program to solve the problem of accidents caused by degraded visual environment (DVE) brownouts and whiteouts.

Secondly, NACRA developed a strategic long-term, seven-element “Path to the Future,” designed to define and execute a rotorcraft center for the “Future State,” and facilitate a rapid war-fighter response and technology development (See Sidebar).

Perhaps the most critical of the cross-platform projects was road-mapping, representing “the planning that goes on in a program office, both near and long term,” Isleib said. “All programs do it in order to ask for money. You have to do some planning and know where you’re planning to go. But what we know from experience is that all programmers do it differently with different degrees of discipline, different degrees of fidelity and different degrees of documenting what they are doing.”

Isleib said that what NACRA looked at from the beginning is different examples of how other groups are running programs and who “does things better than we do as a rotorcraft community.” They particularly looked at TAC-AIR as a community that “does a very good job of establishing where they want to go via a roadmap, and then understanding where to go with program guides, resource guides and users,” he added. NACRA has now done that and established procedures so that “all our programs are doing this road mapping the same way, looking out into the future, doing the same documentation when they go forward as part of the budgeting process and all using the same kind of documentation, so the people seeing their requests will recognize and understand what they are talking about.”

Isleib noted that right now the roadmaps being used go out “about as far as the budget … about five to seven years.” However, the ultimate goal is to look 10 to 20 years into the future, “looking into S&T (science and technology) timeframes … what kind of technologies do we want to be pursing now that can get us to the platforms that we want to define in the future.”

He said that the NAVAIR Chief Technology Office has been working in parallel with NACRA on S&T roadmaps, and the next step “is to combine the near-term road maps and the R&D roadmaps with the S&T kind of roadmaps so that we have one continuous plan for a platform toward the next 10 to 20 years.”

An area in which NACRA “can really leverage our resources” is looking “across services,” he said. “The Army has about three times the number of helicopters that we do, about three times the supporting budget, three times the S&T budget. And they do a form of road mapping. If we can get to a recurring basis, comparing our road maps, looking for areas where we’re overlapping, areas where we can complement each other, that would be good for both services and DoD as a whole.”

The Army’s ATCoE program is, in fact, primarily centering on a form of road-mapping, “determining and lining up the assets available for future projects,” according to Col. Steven Busch, head of the ATCoE and director for Futures and Joint Integration at AMCOM G-3.

“The Army has a road map, a modernization plan that projects well into the future, which looks at this and determines where we need to go with that,” he said. “What we are trying to do is to help enable getting a product to the war-fighter, understanding the need when the requirements guys say, ‘Hey, these are our goals for the next 15 to 20 years, this is where we want to get to’. We don’t want to replace those organizations with what we’re doing … we want to help facilitate and enable those organizations to do it better.”

ATCoE started in September 2008 as an initiative of MG James R. Myles, AMCOM Commander. Initially a “kind of an ad hoc group” among the organizations available at Redstone Arsenal and other aviation agencies, the group formed and signed a memorandum of agreement, Busch said. This MOA basically codifies the relationship between organizations that are already working together. “An MOA is nice to have because when the leader walks out the door and changes the guidon, you have a document that says, ‘That was in my battle book and is something I need to work with,’ versus when it’s not there, it’s kind of ‘Nobody briefed me about this and I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

A major advantage ATCoE has is its vast array of aviation research, development, testing and sustainment assets, with the goal being to find the strength or weaknesses of those assets and their relationships for maximum benefit for development of future vertical lift projects, Busch said. “When we began the process, we wanted to kind of peel back the onion and make sure we were doing the right thing.”

He noted that just at Redstone alone they have access to the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), which includes testing labs, research and development offices. The Integrated Material Management Center (IMMC) “which talks aviation logistics,” and Program Executive Office (PEO)—Aviation.

“Plus we’ve brought in Fort Rucker. They are the requirement guys. The guys from the Aviation Center of Excellence are on our team in that they are the guys at the pointy end of the spear, so they do the requirements. That is why we wanted to make sure that (ATCoE) didn’t just appear to have an S&T focus. We’re looking at the total process and how we can enable that to bring better synergy to the capabilities and organizations we currently have.”

Busch noted that the ATCoE also includes the Army Test & Evaluation Command (ATEC), “and we’ve even added the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).”

The five primary organizations currently within ATCoE’s Integrated Project Team are: PEO-Aviation, AMRDEC, Fort Rucker, ATEC and DHS.

Busch noted that while the Navy’s NACRA office is a bit ahead of ATCoE, his office has the greater internal capabilities available, and is more process oriented. “NACRA is looking at projects, such as brownout. Our organizations are not looking at those things as far as fixes. We’re trying to figure out where we can better the process because we already have those things working. We have our own safety authority here (in AMRDEC) who determines if things are safe, and we go through that process.

“A key element of our strategy is to use state-of-the-art communications technology to connect those with needs, whether it be for technology or technology resources, with those with potential solutions, as well as to be the center for ‘good ideas’ to be introduced into the aviation technology system. These good ideas will cover the gambit of research, technology, and technology management, testing and sustainment. Sort of high quality information flow on steroids.”

The goal is to ensure that the Integrated Project Team is using all those capabilities “and looking at the leverage points to find out where the gaps are. If the requirements guys develop something and they are working with the folks up here at AMCOM, we can focus on those areas where we are not doing it quite quick enough and adjust our process to do it better.”

Basically, the main focus of ATCoE is to provide “continual, targeted, process improvement” Busch said.

Both Busch and Isleib stated that the two organizations are talking to each other and will eventually link up down the road for mutual benefits.

For its DVE program, Isleib said that NACRA took that on “to understand what was going on across the spectrum of brownout solutions and then see if there was a way to arrive at a common requirement across all platforms, define a common requirement that would be the precursor to potentially finding a common solution that would allow us to field something both quicker and cheaper.”

He noted that NACRA is working with both the Army and Air Force on DVE and that “the Air Force Research Lab is doing a lot of good work on sensors.” NACRA understands that the solution will be different depending on the platform and that some of the legacy aircraft without the digital architecture “won’t be able to integrate some of the sensors that would be required in a new aircraft, but they all have the need, and if we can leverage that, we’ll do it.”

The biggest accomplishment to date on DVE is that “We’ve gotten visibility with the Army and the formal requirements they are developing for brownouts … so in our eyes that will be a joint requirement that gives us more teeth as we go forth in trying to resource and field some kind of brown-out solution,” Isleib said.

CBM has the potential for a major payoff in terms of total operating costs, safety and operational availability for all the USN/USMC platforms, Isleib said. Noting that current programs such as the UH-1Y/AH-1Z, UH-60R/S, V-22 and CH-53K are all being built with imbedded sensors to allow CBM, the challenge is “working with the programs, coming to a common understanding of where we’re trying to go with CBM, determining exactly what is CBM, what do we want to get to, then how do we execute it so that it’s not every program doing it for themselves,” Isleib said.

While every aircraft type will have a unique way of collecting the data and getting it off the aircraft, the goal is to develop a common method of transmitting, analyzing and storing the data “so that we’ve got a Navy, Marine Corps and NAVAIR fast-forward on what we are going to analyze, what we are going to look for,” he said.

“All the program managers, without exception, are strong advocates of getting all the benefits that we can out of CDM, and doing it in a common way rather than each program having to figure it out on their own.”

Finding Long Range Answers to Questions Not Yet Asked

Occasionally in developing a strategic goal, the critical issue isn’t finding an answer, but first determining “What is the question?” This is, in fact, on of the quandaries facing the recently formed Naval Aviation Center for Rotorcraft Advancement (NACRA).

NACRA was formed two years ago as part of the recommendations from the Defense Vase Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) to look at the long-range rotorcraft needs of the Navy and determine the best ways to meet those needs when its current rotary wing aircraft become obsolete.

The first thing that needed to be done, according to NACRA Director Douglas Isleib, “was figure out the different elements to the question of where do we want to be in 2020 and 2030.” To do that, NACRA developed seven elements to the question and created seven teams that would be able to “figure out where we want to go and to state clearly how we’re going to get there,” he said. The first of these seven is Tactics, Doctrine and Concept of Operations (CONOPS).

“This deals with how we’re going to employ rotorcraft in the future and what kind of tactics we’ll be using. If you can effectively state where your requirements are going, what your doctrine ought to be and you have the requirements community and resources community aligned with where you want to go in the future, you’re much more likely to get there.”

Next is Programs and Platforms, looking at the 15 different models of rotorcraft currently being flown by the Navy and USMC, then at the seven models that will still be being built out over the next seven years. By about 2020 all the aircraft will be built out, at which point the question becomes “Then what does the rotorcraft industry do,” Isleib said. “Fast-forward 20 years and everything is going to be pretty tired with old technology. You get to about 2028 and we’re starting to retire aircraft. About 2028 is when we’re hitting crunch time when we need to do something. And what is typically done, or has been done in the past, is not much. If we want to develop a new rotorcraft (for 2030) we need to get started right now.”

The third element is S&T/Enabling technologies, determining what technologies will be needed for a next generation platform. “We’re working with the NAVAIR CTO and the Office of Naval Research, the organization that really owns S&T for the Navy,” Isleib said. “The Army is also doing a lot of S&T work and we are working closely with them, leveraging each other’s work.”

Next is Infrastructure, focusing on what is available for developing the next generation platforms.

The fifth element is Resources—what is available both in terms of a budget and the people available to do the job. Isleib noted that despite the mission relevance that rotorcraft bring into today’s wars, it is only allocated about 15 percent of the Navy’s R&D budget. “I don’t think that is enough to get us to the next generation,” he said. As for people, the workforce is going to be increasingly competitive as the population changes. “If we’re not going to be doing the new exciting work, we won’t bring in the young talent. We need to be thinking about how we are going to grow and maintain this vibrant workforce.”

The sixth element, Community/Coalition, involves looking at all the individual groups involved in the helicopter industry, both military and civilian. “This involves understanding the world around us and what everyone else is doing, what are the blocks to efficient communications and efficient leveraging of efforts, then trying to break down those roadblocks, he said. “There’s a lot of operators out there, there’s a lot of maintainers, and there’s a lot of lessons to be learned.”

One major brick wall facing an effective effort is “tribalism,” Isleib said. “The H-60 guys hang together; the H-1 guys hang together. Some of this is good, such as for pride, because that is what is going to make them good at what they do. But how do we get them out of there? We can entice them up one layer to work together in short term collaboration, such as to develop a road map or talk about better ways to develop anti-submarine warfare. But what they are doing is foraging for advantages. And when they find an advantage, they carry it back down into their stovepipe to help get over on the other guy.”

Lastly is Industry, looking at contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers. “Are there choke points? If one company fails, will that be a problem for an entire program?” One of the decisions that needs to be made now is “what do you do so that when the production line goes cold, you don’t lose that expertise and experience,” Isleib said. “How do we keep them busy so that we can bridge the gap, allowing industry to retain the know-how and the ability to do whatever it is we want them to do in 20 years?”

Isleib said that in working on the two major projects—the tactical cross-platform programs and the strategic seven elements programs—NACRA is starting by looking at the costs of programs and how to get to the next generation fleets of rotorcraft. “We want to influence that by standing up the capability to develop things cheaper, faster and better across the (rotorcraft) programs.”

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