Enterprise Architecture for the World’s Largest Aviation Fleet

A previous version of this article had an incorrect number of Black Hawk helicopters, referring to total production versus total fielding.

By John T. StoughChief Architecture Officer, JHNA, supporting US Army PEO Aviation MOSA Transformation Office and Future Vertical Lift (FVL) 

Pop quiz: What aviation fleet has more aircraft than Delta and American Airlines combined? You might jump up to say “well, perhaps the US Air Force?”  Being an Air Force veteran myself, that would have been my guess.  It is the US Army, however, that has more flying machines.   

The US Army innovated the concept of Air Assault, made famous from the Vietnam era newsreels, then later in movies like “Platoon” and “We Were Soldiers.”  These mechanical hummingbirds are the workhorse of the vertical mobility and attack element of our national defense.  They fly in Combat Aviation Brigades (CABs), for special operations, in support of humanitarian aid (like you see on the news after a hurricane), and to transport troops, supplies, and VIPs anywhere and everywhere in the world.  But what does that have to do with Enterprise Architecture or the governance of complex systems?  Everything! 

The Army Aviation Center of Excellence’s motto is “Above the Best,” and while I am sure you get the double meaning it is worth repeating – Army aviators fly above the best soldiers on earth and, at the same time, our technology is above the best technology of any other national contender.  However, our global position is at risk; we live in a world where great power competition is increasing and technology is driven by global innovation ecosystems far more complex than imagined when the Black Hawk helicopter was designed against the backdrop of Vietnam.  The problem is not simply one of an aging physical airframe design, but of the agile insertion of new capabilities into complex systems, both enduring and future designs.  The Army needs new aircraft, to be sure, and that is certainly being addressed by the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programs; the amazing FVL technical advancements will augment the Apache and Black Hawk with the (still in development) Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) and Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA).  The cool official monikers for these FVL aircraft that will become tomorrow’s household names are still a few years off, even as their prototypes are flying now.   

An enterprise as large as the US Army, however, does not augment or replace the world’s largest aviation fleet overnight. There are over 2,000 Black Hawks alone, with many times more than that of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), other manned helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, ground support equipment, sensors, hardware, and software that enables the Aviation mission.  The enduring fleet of Army platforms will remain in service, performing a wide variety of missions, when the first FLRAA and FARA roll off the assembly line; even so, there is still no planned replacement for the venerable Chinook heavy lift cargo helicopter (which has an even older airframe design).  The Air Force gets all the news, so every kid with a toy airplane can relate to the B-52 paradigm for maintaining a whole fleet capability as new bombers continue to roll out alongside the “BUFF. 

The age of the airframe design alone does not really address the complexity of the problem; the real problem is the advent of the digital information/access age, which fundamentally changes the way we interoperate in complex environments.  The future pilot of the FLRAA and FARA, as well as the Black Hawk and Apache they will fly alongside, is still in grade school now.  That future pilot touches a tablet for nearly everything they do, and they swipe in different directions for task management or context switching, await cognitive aiding for reminders on action items, and communicate nearly instantly without ever being formally taught such technology in the classroom.  What is more, the defense marketplace is shifting, having been the dominant supplier of technology after World War II the defense industry now seeks to leverage Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) technology to keep pace (rather than simply setting the pace) so that resources can be focused more correctly on the truly unique defense aspects of technology.  The complexities of government contracting, defense unique specifications, and the absolutely unforgiving operating environment for weapons systems (which must work when everything else fails around you) make this a daunting challenge.  That vertical lift asset still must get there, perform its mission, and exchange data (or, as we say in the Army “Shoot, Move, and Communicate”).   

Meanwhile, the cost of aviation technology development is rising, already awash with significant media attention for safety issues due to technology, while at the same time budgets for defense are in the crosshairs as other critical national needs like health and environmental remain persistent concerns.  Do more with less cannot mean that we do nothing, or else we will ultimately loose the great power competition that history proves will continue for the foreseeable future of humankind.  All of this has yet more complexity due to the 1970’s era defense acquisition system, continuously under reform – such as with the new Adaptive Acquisition Pathways.  Defense Acquisition has the effect of treating each individual system (or “Program of Record”) as a micro-enterprise.  The result is similar to a company with very diverse business units looking to integrate its technical architecture while still maintaining those individual business units – only in this case with a congressional mandate to prevent moving funding across the portfolio (e.g. between those units) to accomplish the enterprise goals!  Before you think you have wrapped your arms around that, fellow architects, may I remind you that autonomy is no longer science fiction (might I add, national defense must account for global capabilities, not just our own). 

These are the myriad challenges of architecting the Army Aviation enterprise.  Addressing these challenges requires a clear strategic vision that blends both the business and technical aspects of the enterprise, captures and addresses the various stakeholder concerns, and orchestrates a roadmap for change that is focused, agile, and executed with precision That does not mean there are never failures, but it does mean that no single setback obstructs the enterprise goal. 

I work as an architecture SME for the Program Executive Office (PEO) for Aviation; along with others across the Army Aviation ecosystem, we have endeavored to change the way we “do the business” of technology.  In November 2020, the PEO launched a Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) Transformation Office.  MOSA became part of the way Congress expects the Defense ecosystem and future programs to operate and codified it in the law known as the National Defense Authorization Act, which calls out very specific provisions to architect towards modularity and openness concerns that enable our future global stability.  Our team seeks to ensure that architectural solutions are for the whole Enterprise (not just the new exquisite platforms alone) and that the desired agility is achievable now (not just a decade from now) as we are constantly and perpetually modernizing the fleet. 

Examples of such recent successes include the new UH-60V “Victor” model aircraft, which entailed replacing the “Steam Gauges” with a digital cockpit, complete with a full overhaul of the airframe.  This program was rapidly and successfully executed (as seen in recent news) with an open architecture infrastructure based on the Future Airborne Capabilities Environment (FACE) Technical Standard.  Following that, the even faster and more targeted Crew Mission Station (CMS) program brought touch screens to the cabin area for additional crew access; this program executed rapidly and openly achieved success and the team has shared the technical details at various public and cross-service architecture collaboration events.  Even more architecture programs have shown success on the Science and Technology side of the Enterprise and we are even working with our friends in the UK on the Collaborative Open Systems Architecture (COSA) to ensure we can remain interoperable with our allies on the future complex landscape.  

Bringing all of these things together under a clear and executable governance structure is the focus area of our MOSA Transformation effort. The PEO Aviation theme for FY21 is Driving Army Aviation Transformation and everything that I mentioned here are elements of the intentional strategy to drive optimal and sustainable material solutions across the Army Aviation portfolio to win the fight both today and in the future. Watch this space for more information about our lessons learned from this transformation effort! 

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John is the Chief Architecture Officer (CAO) for JHNA.  John has more than 25 year of professional experience that includes a unique mix of technical and leadership roles in multiple industries from aviation, industrial controls, robotics, 3D visualization, missile defense, and active-duty service in the US Air Force.  He is an entrepreneur at heart; after having started and sold a small software consulting company, he has continued by mentoring other startups, as co-founder of a non-profit, and recently has been joining with his wife start a coffee company (Alchemy).  John was elected by his peers in the aviation industry to serve on the Board of Directors for the Vertical Lift Consortium (VLC) and has spoken at several national conferences on Open Architecture.  His consultations on architecture include the Open Group Architecture Forum, the Future Airborne Capabilities Environment (FACE) Consortium, the OSD Modular Open Systems Working Group (MOSWG), and on international teams such as the Collaborative Open System Architecture (COSA) project.  He is currently supporting the US Army Program Executive Office (PEO) for Aviation as an architecture Subject Matter Expert (SME).  Prior to this, he supported the Project Managers (PM) for Future Vertical Lift (FVL) and Utility Helicopters (on the UH-60V digital avionics upgrade).   John holds a Bachelor of Science in BA / MIS from Columbia College and a number of professional certifications, including: Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP); IT Project Manager from George Washington / ESIthe Software Engineering Institute (SEI) for Architecture and Product Line Management; MIT (Architecture and Systems Engineering); and Certificate of Theology and Ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary.  He and his family live in Huntsville, Alabama. He can be reached at John.stough@jhna.com