Luke Savoie, president of L3 Technologies Surveillance and Strike Systems, discusses the company’s partnership with AVX and the merits of the aircraft the two have developed to pursue the US Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program, otherwise known as the Capability Set 1 of the service’s Future Vertical Lift effort with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference and tradeshow in Nashville, Tenn., where our coverage was sponsored by Bell and Leonardo DRS.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Nashville, Tennessee where we’re covering the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference and trade show, the number one gathering of U.S. Army aviators and indeed Army aviators from around the world gathering here to meet with industry, thought leaders, media and more. Our coverage here is sponsored by Bell and Leonardo DRS.
We’re here on the L3 stand, one of our other sponsors, to talk to Luke Savoie who is a former U.S. Air Force Major, AC-130 gunship, a special operator with 3,000 hours under your belt, who is now the President of the Surveillance and Strike System Sector, the S3 in the L3. Sir, great seeing you.
Luke Savoie: Great seeing you too. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Mr. Muradian: Let’s talk a little bit about the Army’s aviation modernization plan. It’s on the forefront of almost every conversation we’re having here. And the Army has been looking at each one of its Cap Sets, Cap Set 1, Cap Set 2, Cap Set 3. Obviously the V-280 and the Defiant are in the Cap Set 3 part. Cap Set 1 is the Raider, which is the Sikorsky-Lockheed team that are working that. Lockheed also is partnered with Boeing on the Defiant part of it. Everybody is cooperating and partnering with everybody else, because I think Bell is also partnered with Lockheed.
But talk to us a little bit, a little bit less of the focus is the partnership that you guys have with AVX to bring your own Cap Set 1 competitor to the floor. Talk to us, Luke, a little bit about the capabilities and your guys’ proposal.
Mr. Savoie: Absolutely. One, it’s important to see what the Futures Command is trying to do. They’re out there doing very non-traditional acquisitions, specifically launching that with the first Cap Set FARA, the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft. And really AVX which has been involved in the JMRTD from a design perspective, primarily on rotors and gear boxes. And us who come with a systems perspective, a platform perspective. You know, really the marriage of those two teams who are really non-traditional. Our work with Futures on [EMBGB], and our work with Army Aviation on [FU] and other things as well, really go together.
Mr. Muradian: And if you could explain those acronyms to our audience, it would be great. The Army aviator types will be fine with it. Everybody else might go what the heck was Luke talking about?
Mr. Savoie: No, no, no. Absolutely. With the Futures Command, they have a new NVG, Night Vision Goggle program that has augmented reality in it, a white phosphorous. We’re really the lead program for Futures for delivering that this year, which really showed how non-traditional acquisition could rapidly create just generation-leaping types of capability in the field.
We’re bringing that exact same culture and mindset with another group, AVX, who is very, very like minded as us. Out of the box thinking, non-traditional supply chain, non-traditional design mentality. That’s really what’s bringing our coaxial compound helicopter to reality as part of the FARA proposal.
Mr. Muradian: So why do you guys think you’ve got the edge in this? Obviously the compound coaxial idea is what’s really in the fore. We see that also in the Raider design. Mirrored also in its bigger brother, you could argue, the Defiant. What do you see as the great attribute to this setup which has a lot of moving parts to it? There are some aviators who look at it and they go wow, it was one thing to have four, you know, eight blades turning whereas you’ve got a lot more going on here.
Mr. Savoie: Actually the design concept on the coaxial side is actually not something new. It’s actually, when you’re trying to get into a condensed footprint, that’s a key thing. But we like to say we’re faster, lighter, more agile, lethal, longer endurance. Really, when you bring a lightweight capability with using the ITEP engine that the Army has supplied with our very, very small footprint system, and you bring that systems approach to the entire thing, and then also starting with the mission. A lot of us are all prior aviators are involved in this and we really start with the mission and work back through the requirement. That really shows itself in design. A lot of us have a lot of lessons on why certain seating arrangements are good, why the gun placement is good, why the rotor system for sustainability and performance is important. I think all those lead to a faster system, a more lethal system, and one that can stay on station longer than anything else out there.
Mr. Muradian: Cap Set 1 has a 30 foot circle diameter if I’m correct?
Mr. Savoie: Forty foot.
Mr. Muradian: Forty foot, excuse me. Thirty foot would have been a little bit too teeny-weeny. But talk to us about the overall attributes. Why do you think your aircraft is better suited than the other ones?
Mr. Savoie: One, we’re in the middle still of a down-select, so hopefully the Army will make an announcement here shortly on who the down-selectees are. So I won’t go into all the unique discriminators and specifics, but the reality really comes down to that the smaller the footprint the better, and the faster you can go the better, and we believe that we meet or exceed every requirement that is out there that the Army has laid forward.
Mr. Muradian: Part of this will involve flying the airplanes. How far away are you guys from actually flying an airplane?
Mr. Savoie: We have the schedule laid out for the government. We have when we’ll induct the first fuselage at our production facility that we’ll be doing the prototype activities at. And then as laid out by the Army, we’ll meet the Army’s schedule which is first flight in 42 months.
Mr. Muradian: Which is pretty aggressive, right? If you look at it, the Army has talked about Cap Set 3 in 2028 and that airplane, both of the airplanes are now flying on that. From your standpoint are you guys going to be able to attain such an aggressive schedule?
Mr. Savoie: Absolutely. And a lot of that is not waiting for different milestones and for the government to catch up. We’re in this to win it, and we’re full speed ahead right now and making this thing a reality.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you a little bit about the challenge — the Army is asking every one of the teams here to make an investment. But one of the challenges and concerns appears to be, for example, Boeing invested in the Block 2 model of the Chinook, for example, and the Army has decided it’s not going to buy any more of those, aside from equipping the 160thwith it, which makes a lot of sense.
But if you look at that overall lift requirement, folks are looking at this saying wait, a couple of years ago the number one thing was lift and maybe moving ahead more quickly with Cap Set 3, and now it’s like well, we need the Kiowa replacement, and we haven’t had Kiowas in the force. The Apaches have sort of adapted to that mission.
So talk to us a little bit, do you guys have a certainty that the Army has actually thought through its plans as you’re getting ready and making this kind of investment, that the Army really is, it’s thinking clearly enough as it goes through doing this so that you don’t end up investing with something that next year maybe is no longer a requirement?
Mr. Savoie: I think the Army has really thought about this more so than they have in any other acquisition. I think they’ve looked at the modeling, what the threat is out there, and I think the threat and the potential areas of operations and the types of adversaries that we will engage have led to a, we’ve been doing a COIN, counter-insurgency type of war, counterterrorism war here for the last 20 years, and the reality is, when the Army looks at what the Army specifically needs versus what the Joint Force needs, I think FARA is what they need. They need the attack, reconnaissance type of aircraft to get out in front of the leading edge of troops. Assist in the number one priority of the Army which is long range precision fires. And assist in making that even more lethal and further, further into enemy territory. And then there’s the lift component of that.
But I think if you look at the Army’s FYDP, what they just submitted in the FYDP, they’ve looked at doing both simultaneously, both Cap Set 3 and Cap Set 1. So I think the army has truly, truly really looked at both the threat and the sustainment trail and the longevity of the fleet that they had and really prioritized it correctly to basically do both, but lead from an acquisition perspective with the smaller aircraft and prove out the methodology that we’re using and accelerate it because the JMRTD really brought Cap Set 3 very, very far along the road already. So it’s already a much more mature requirement.
Mr. Muradian: Once upon a time, a Kiowa, for example, would be fairly alone. Now you have many, many layers of overhead assets. L3 is in the business of those overhead assets as well both on the manned and unmanned side of the equation. How does this integrate, how does this manned platform integrate? I was talking with a former Scout helicopter guy who was saying look, I’m not sure even that requirement is as valid as it used to be a long time ago because that really, we’re evolving so many overhead layers that there are a lot of different ways to try to do this mission. How do you integrate this with the rest of that aviation infrastructure that the Army has built, particularly over the last couple of decades, that has fundamentally changed how it does the scouting, reconnaissance and surveillance mission?
Mr. Savoie: I think L3 has been at the forefront of that already. Specifically the manned/unmanned teaming side of things that we have enabled the Apache with. I think we bring the exact same things when we look at mission architecture, we look at system architecture. On any of the Cap sets, but the Cap Set 1 in particular. We look at hey, we already know how to integrate those layers. We’re a prime on some of those layers. We’re a prime on the components of those layers. We know the architectures better than anyone. You can guarantee that our offering on FARA already looks at the current architectures and how to integrate them and the future ones, and having those being things that scale to the Nth degree without affecting your size, weight and power on the platform.
Mr. Muradian: Now I have to ask you, you flew one of the most iconic and coolest airplanes on the planet, the AC-130 gunship. The only airplane that has a gun sight on the left side of the airplane. And you also flew the U-28 which is an airplane that actually nobody knows anything about, actually. But talk to us a little bit about what it was like flying, you were a veteran of Fallujah I which was, everybody on the ground, I have friends who were very very thankful for the overhead support that all parts of the Joint Force were giving, but especially the gunships because of the precision you guys bring to it. Talk to us a little bit about the extraordinary mission of this fairly quiet community within the Special Operations community.
Mr. Savoie: Gunships are near and dear to my heart. I loved flying AC-130s and I love working on the next generation. Right now I do work on the AC-130 Whiskey, the AC-130J which takes just having the guns on the side, to now incorporating standoff precision engagement munitions, low collateral damage munitions, small diameter bombs. Right now we have a much more wider array of munitions on the platform. And by the way, we’re doing it with half the crew. Those are the enabling technologies at L3 that we’re enabling on that to really do twice as much with half as many people on the next generation of aircraft.
Mr. Muradian: Talk to us about what it’s like to fly an airplane that has multiple different calibers of guns going off all at the same time, including a 105mm.
Mr. Savoie: I like to tell people on FARA when we talk about
the gun and the integration around that, I was involved in the 30-Mike-Mike integration on the AC-130 Whiskey, and it’s a joy to fly. And ironically, the 105 moves the airplane the least amount. It’s actually the 25mm Gatling gun on the nose. That’s the thing that pushes the airplane the most.
It’s great, especially when you’re putting the hurt on the enemy.
Mr. Muradian: That’s fantastic. And on the U-28, for our audience who doesn’t know anything about the U-28 because, as you said, most people have absolutely no idea what you say, tell people what the U-28 did and why it’s so freaking cool.
Mr. Savoie: Well, it was classified for quite a while, but it’s a multi-mission aircraft based on the Pilatus PC-12, surveillance capability on a multi Nth scale. But once again, with a very small crew it does a tremendous amount with multiple sensors on the platform, multiple capabilities, and at a very, very low cost per flight hour. Our last cost was like $330 flight hour, and they just passed a half million hours this past year. So 500,000 hours in an aircraft that’s only been around since 2006.
Mr. Muradian: And it’s pretty cool that things with propellers are still pretty cool and flying and doing the job every day.
Mr. Savoie: It most certainly is.
Mr. Muradian: Sir, thanks very much. Luke, really appreciate it, from S3 of the L3, really appreciate it. Best of luck on the program.
Mr. Savoie: Thank you. Appreciate it.