EDITOR’S BUNKER BRIEFING: 1 APRIL 2024 (No.86)

FARA contender: Sikorsky’s Raider X

Fara is Dead, Long Live….?

Where do crewed military helicopters fit into today’s order of battle? Has their operational vulnerability substantially increase now that current war-fighting has reverted to predominantly linear engagements as currently being witnessed in the Ukraine? This type of warfare is reminiscent of Cold War scenarios where it was deemed that any helicopter flying in the neighbourhood of, or beyond, the forward line of troops (FLOT) was at very high risk of being shot out of the sky.

The US Pentagon seems to think so. On 8 February the US Army announced the cancellation of its long time in the planning, carefully managed (let’s not make the same mistakes as before), heavily invested and ‘certain to succeed this time’ latest replacement for the US Army’s Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior (the last of which were not fully retired until July 2020). The Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) would now not be taken forward into production, the same fate that happened to its predecessor the Boeing–Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche which was cancelled in 2004 after $7 billion had been spend on its development and a pair of flying prototypes had been produced. After this, there was a brief flirtation with Bell’s ARH-70 Arapaho which the company had proposed as a lower cost alternative to the Comanche, but after a contract award for 368 ARH-70s in July 2005, a crash and rapid escalation in costs above the original proposals resulted in a Nunn-McCurdy cost and schedule breach which resulted in the cancellation of that contact in October 2008.

Industry was shocked by the decision to cancel FARA, not least because those primes who were working to create prototypes have now taken a hit following years of investment. Bell and Sikorsky were both working towards producing flying prototypes having been downselected to move to the next stage in March 2020; Bell with its 360 Invictus and Sikorsky progressing its much developed Raider X technology. Both companies had finally received first test deliveries of Army Aviation’s new General Electric T901 Improved Turbine Engine (ITEP). While Bell can still bask in its win of the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) programme – the other programme to emerge out of the original Joint Multi Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR TD) project – as a major consolation, Sikorsky is left with no immediate home for its Raider X development.

Bell’s official comment stated that they were disappointed (heavy understatement – Ed) by the decision on the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program. However, the company took a pragmatic view that it would “apply the knowledge and demonstrated successes of our FARA development efforts on future aircraft”, adding that it would of course “work closely with the Army on executing the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) program” and whatever may arise on the Army’s future vertical lift needs.

Sikorsky’s official comment underlined the work that they had already done in developing compound rotorcraft saying that “there must be a transformational improvement in rotorcraft systems capabilities – and a strong engineering workforce that can strengthen the nation’s leading edge in rotorcraft innovation. With a $1 billion investment, X2 aircraft offer speed, range and agility that no other helicopter in the world can match. We remain confident in X2 aircraft for U.S. and international mission needs now and in the future. We are disappointed in this decision and will await a U.S. Army debrief to better understand its choice.”

FARA contender: Bell’s Invictus 360
FARA contender: Bell’s Invictus 360

The Next Steps

After years of receiving briefings from the US Army’s senior leadership about its need for both FARA and FLRAA since the early days when the requirement was off the starting blocks as JMR-TD, it was a big surprise that Major General Walter Rugen, the Army’s director of Aviation at the Pentagon, did not mention FARA once in his opening keynote address at the recent International Military Helicopter conference staged by DefenceIQ held in London less than three weeks after the announcement. Not one reference either in his speech or in his slides. While it is understandable that having made the decision to cancel and move on, FARA has been such a major part of Army Aviation’s future plans for so long it was suddenly being completely ignored. Several delegates voiced surprise and disappointment that at least a reflection on the reasoning behind the cancellation was not forthcoming.
Rugen began by talking of Army Aviation’s key initiatives and the necessity “to modernise quickly, or risk losing our strategic advantage.” He added that “Army formations must continually transform to build and maintain readiness to support the joint force in the next fight, and the current fight.”

One of the problems of course with continuous transformation is that while technology does indeed advance at a rapid pace, the same cannot be said about the development and procurement of capability, particularly in the face of defence budgets under economic pressure which often lead to slow downs in acquisition. This also against a backdrop of a networked whole force and the need to bring along close allies.

Rugen did acknowledge this conflict: “If we can’t accelerate the timelines for our modernisation within our formations, we will degrade our ability to deter those who would seek to challenge and disrupt the established order that underpins our shared security.”

To do this, he said, “We must accelerate the divestment of equipment and structure built up for the COIN (counter-insurgency) fight and invest in capabilities that will deter China and Russia in the near term. This means difficult decisions need to be made in the Pentagon, and it has been difficult. The competition for resources is as intense as it’s ever been.”

As happened after the cancellation of Comanche, the existing aviation force will continue to be invested in and modernised. Said Rugen: “We will continue to field the AH-64 V6 through 2028, the UH-60 and HH60M through to 2026, and we will formally enter into production for the CH 47F Block II with a path to full rate production in the future. We will finish fielding the Grey Eagle ER unmanned aircraft system this year, and we will begin fielding the Grey Eagle 25M in FY 27. Software upgrades the AH-64E will improve commonality across our fleets beginning in FY 26. We will fulfil the direct requirement for the Spike NLOS (Non Line Of Sight) missile to three Combat Aviation brigades in this calendar year. Also a host of degreed visual environment and aircraft survivability equipment will be fielded in the coming years. These two capabilities are game changers for us, we view them as a strategic advantage.”

The first flight of the General Atomics (GA-ASI) Grey Eagle 25M (GE-25M) occurred on 5 December 2023. It is expected to be a part of the developing Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) concept and its improved flight computer should deliver five times more processing capacity and 80 times more data storage (with 10 times more RAM). The flight was also the first to test the aircraft’s new HFE 2.0 engine and power generation systems.

Rugen stated that the Pentagon’s strategy was focused once again (as it had before following the Comanche cancellation) on continuing to modernise and upgrade the performance of the existing aviation force that “will mitigate our capability gaps and until we can field the next generation of aircraft and supporting technologies, such as the future long range assault aircraft (FLRAA), modular open system architecture (MOSA), uncrewed aircraft systems, and lethal and non lethal launched effects.”

While the ITEP programme suffered alongside the cancellation of FARA, it still has a longer term future with modernised Apaches and Black Hawks. However, although development will progress at a slower pace, getting back to full funding may well have to wait for at least a couple of years following further development results.

In conclusion, the cancellation of FARA seems to be a decision hastily made (compared to the many years spend in development) from observations of the war in Ukraine, together with financial nervousness over the collective costs of introducing a range of new and expensive technology including platforms, engines, weapons and other associated systems.

Andrew Drwiega
Editor-in-Chief


QUOTE OF THE MONTH

“We need to learn to set our course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship.”
– Omar Bradley


GENERAL NEWS AND ITEMS OF INTEREST

UK NMH Moves to Invitation to Negotiate

The UK’s New Medium Helicopter (NMH) is progressing to the next stage thanks to an announcement on 27 February by James Cartlidge, the United Kingdom’s Minister of State for Defence & Procurement, of an invitation to negotiate with all three helicopter manufacturers who remained in the competition. Airbus Helicopters UK has proposed its H175M, Leonardo Helicopters UK its AW149, and Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky with its S-70M Black Hawk.


US Air Force FY25 Budget Reveals Reduced Production for MH-139A Helicopters

According to the Department of the Air Force FY 2025 President’s Budget “funding is available to procure 42 MH-139A helicopters, training devices, and associated support equipment” (page 177). The initial number was stated as 84 MH-139 helicopters, but a lesser overall requirement has also recently been reported.

The FY25 AF Budget reveals that 20 MH-139M helicopters were scheduled to have been delivered by the end of 2024, with eight more scheduled for 2025, taking the total to 28. However, subsequent years FY26-29 will only see two per year adding another eight MH-139As for a total of 36 helicopters.

The MH-139A Grey Wolf was selected in 2019 to replace the Air Force’s fleet of UH-1N aircraft to provide rotary lift and support to the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) and Air Education and Training Command (AETC).

MH-139As are being made by Boeing in partnership with Italian rotorcraft manufacturer Leonardo, who originally designed the AW139.