Joint Heavy Lift: Past, Present and Compelling Future

By Col. Robert Quackenbush, U.S. Army | August 1, 2008
Send Feedback

The U.S. Defense Dept is on the brink of a renaissance of interest and investment in vertical takeoff and landing systems across the services due to their invaluable operational impact.

I aim in this article to set the record straight on Joint Heavy Lift’s status and future and its relationship to January’s agreement by the chiefs of staff of the U.S. Army and Air Force to create a consolidated capabilities document for the Joint Future Theater Lift.

A brief history is important to establish the joint roots of Joint Heavy Lift and set the context of current events.


In January 2005, the Defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics established a joint investigation of heavy vertical-lift requirements and technology. The Army, based on its interest and experience, was tasked to lead a joint-service body in this Joint Heavy Lift concept-refinement effort to set operational requirements and define technology issues and expectations. A Flag Officer Steering Committee was set up to ensure joint oversight, and individual joint integrated product teams were set up to address requirements and technology. The Joint Forces Command facilitated an initial capabilities document, which was submitted by the Defense secretary’s staff into the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System Knowledge Management Data System for joint staffing in early 2005.

Through continuing requirements work, that original document has evolved. The biggest changes were payload-capacity increases (driven primarily by Future Combat System weight growth), minimum capable speed to support aerial refueling and insertion of fuel efficiency as a critical consideration. The Army, as lead for the requirements joint integrated product team, resubmitted that document into the joint-staffing system in October 2007. Comments were resolved with all Defense Dept entities except the Air Force. Both versions of the capabilities document described heavy-lift vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and super-short takeoff and landing (SSTOL) as means of mitigating defined capability gaps. SSTOL, defined as clearing a 50-ft obstacle with a 1,000-ft takeoff run, was recognized as mitigating some; VTOL filled all of the defined gaps.

To resolve the USAF objections, the chiefs of staff agreed to merge the Joint Heavy Lift and Advanced Joint Air Combat System requirements into an integrated initial capabilities document that supports VTOL and STOL (defined as clearing a 50-ft obstacle with a 1,500-ft takeoff run). They also agreed to conduct an analysis of alternatives to focus Program Objective Memorandum development investment. The agreement to include routine STOL vs. SSTOL was a compromise between the chiefs. However, the Army and the other land-component forces still hold that VTOL provides the most significant operational capability to support mounted vertical maneuver and distributed sustainment and enable seabasing operations.

The joint requirements team determined VTOL’s operational utility is undeniable. It dramatically increases access options and combat-power build rates, improves survivability by inhibiting predictability, adds sustainment options for delivery to the point of need, and enables seabasing (the only feasible capability to do so). Various other studies have shown the virtue of heavy-lift VTOL, including several joint war games and a recent Army Combined Arms Support Command study.

Simple calculations by the joint requirements integrated product team show that using a heavy-lift VTOL to bypass forward operating bases and deliver directly to the point of need would reduce fuel consumption and overall flight time by 2.5 and 3.5 times respectively. That is more than current methods of flying C-130s to the forward operating base, then flying supplies forward with existing helicopters.

The joint technology integrated product team extensively analyzed different VTOL configurations and technology issues and concluded, with confidence, that such a system is feasible. The desired VTOL system’s size and efficiency characteristics require an advanced technology demonstration.

This team assessed the results of dedicated government and industry design investigations and, working with the requirements team, have portrayed a potential solution: a high-efficiency tilt-rotor. Such a system offers VTOL and STOL capability in a 300-kt, fuel-efficient solution that supports all the Joint Heavy Lift requirements. The joint technology team has not defined this as the only material option, but uses it as reflective of what capability can be achieved in a heavy-lift VTOL system. Significant work will be done in the next few years under Army, Navy, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and Special Operations Command sponsorship to set the stage for an experimental flight demonstration program.

The chiefs’ agreement tasked the Air Force with the "administrative" lead in merging the Joint Heavy Lift and Advanced Joint Air Combat System requirements. The USAF requirements team has now joined the rest of the joint community actively in working together to establish a requirement for a next-generation airlift system that has been validated by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. Changing the title to Joint Future Theater Lift is recognition that different perspectives are being merged into a single set of requirements. Once the new initial capabilities document is approved by the joint oversight council, it will be the basis for an analysis of alternatives that will inform the Defense Dept on what investments should be made. The new capabilities document may spawn multiple capability-development documents, depending upon the analysis results and subsequent investment decisions. In the meantime, Joint Heavy Lift maintains its technical identity as the VTOL candidate to satisfy the capabilities requirements.

Regardless of the materiel solution pursued, the interdependent aspects of the impact of such a system mandate that it be pursued as a joint program. Based on roles and missions, the Air Force is expected to eventually become the lead service for system acquisition. That has really never been in dispute. But the continuing evolution of the requirements and technology development is expected to be done jointly under the guidance of a joint program office.

The question to be addressed is whether requirements can be merged sufficiently to permit one technology solution to adequately address both sets.

USAF has a valid and vested interest in its fixed-wing, theater-lift concepts and will and should continue the evolution of thinking and technology in support of them. Likewise, the Army, Marines, and special-ops community have a valid need for the capabilities offered by VTOL systems. The question that will be addressed as the joint community goes forward together is whether requirements can be merged sufficiently to permit one technology solution to adequately address both sets or whether a combination of systems provides the best cost- and operational-effectiveness solution for the nation. The dedicated and thorough work of competent professionals in the requirements and technology communities will answer that question for the good of the joint forces and the U.S.

The Joint Future Theater Lift initial capabilities document is being revised to include the Air Force airlift missions beyond those already identified in the Joint Heavy Lift capabilities document. We plan to bring the former to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council in early Fiscal 2009 for validation. Following that validation, the joint services intend to complete an analysis of alternatives to weigh proposed solutions against the future theater lift requirements in time to inform development of program objective memoranda for Fiscal 2012.

The technology communities have been asked to develop a risk-reduction bridging plan for Fiscal 2010-11 in advance of a competitive X-plane advanced technology demonstration to begin in Fiscal 2012. This timeline is four years later than originally presented to the Defense secretary’s staff in 2004 due to the ongoing requirements conflicts and budget realities for starting an effort of the magnitude associated with a large flight prototype system. But the net result should be a system that has the full backing of all the joint services, joint staff and the secretary of Defense.

The future for Joint Future Theater Lift, and Joint Heavy Lift as its VTOL candidate, is very bright. The extent of analysis and debate over the requirement and viable solution space is building a strong coalition of support within the Defense Dept and a wide recognition of the impact that it will have on future joint operations. The joint community has built concept-of-operation descriptions that clearly show the national strategic and tactical value of being able to conduct mounted vertical maneuver, distributed sustainment to the point of need and seabasing. A next-generation, heavy-lift transport is essential to realization of these operational concepts. Several of the combatant commanders have already voiced their support for this capability and the need to demonstrate its maturity. Congressional leaders are becoming aware of VTOL’s impact in general and are calling for a clear path ahead for such systems in the Defense Dept. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently pledged his commitment to develop such a plan. We can expect Joint Future Theater Lift and Joint Heavy Lift will be part of it.

We are very bullish on the future of vertical heavy lift. The Defense Dept is on the brink of a renaissance of interest and investment in VTOL systems across the services due to their invaluable operational impact. The operational impact of capable VTOL systems is undeniable. We must all work together to realize performance-stretching goals because the future generation of warriors depends on that.

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox