The US Army’s vertical takeoff
revolution takes shape
By Andrew McLaughlin
The US Army’s comprehensive and acronym-rich Future Vertical Lift (FVL) helicopter recapitalisation program took a big step forward in March when the shortlisted contenders for two of the key elements of the program were announced.
FVL is a family of systems designed to replace the US Army’s current vertical takeoff capabilities with a new generation of revolutionary aircraft that can leverage common hardware components, software, production, and operational elements.
The FVL program resulted from the FY2009 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in which Congress directed the Pentagon to ‘outline a joint approach of the development of vertical lift aircraft for all the military services’.
The US Defense Secretary subsequently authorised the establishment of the DoD FVL initiative to address vertical lift capability requirements, focus technology development, and determine feasible and affordable solutions beyond 2030. Four integrated product teams were formed to focus on coordinating and synchronising service activities for requirements, science and technology, acquisition, and common systems.
Leading the way for FVL is the medium-lift Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) – also known as Capability Set 3 – which will initially complement and eventually replace the Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk transport helicopter.
In parallel with FLRAA, the US Army is also developing the light-scout Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) – or Capability Set 1 – which will fill the armed reconnaissance helicopter (ARH) requirement left vacant by the failed Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche and the Bell ARH-70 Arapaho, both of which were cancelled in 2004 and 2008 respectively. Following the retirement of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior in 2017, the ARH/light attack role has been performed in service by the heavier Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopter.
There are currently no plans to replace the AH-64E or the heavy-lift CH-47F/MH-47G Chinook as part of the FVL effort, although the US Army has indicated that these could be follow-on programs once FARA and FLRAA are more advanced.
In addition to FARA and FLRAA, the FVL program is also working on two other capabilities – the Future Unmanned Aircraft System (FUAS), and the FVL Modular Open System Architecture (MOSA) – both of which are designed to be “critical enablers” across the FVL family of systems.
FUAS will work with FARA, FLRAA and current aircraft to enable long-range precision fires by combining ground-launched unmanned systems with air-launched effects (ALE) through manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T). MOSA, meanwhile, is a set of common design standards that will be applied across the entire FVL fleet to enable faster technological insertion, greater competition, and interoperability.
In the meantime, the US Army is accelerating FARA and FLRAA by deviating from the US DoD’s traditional acquisition model and applying instead the ‘Middle Tier of Acquisition for Rapid Prototyping and Rapid Fielding’ model as outlined in the 2009 NDAA. This model will see companies develop technology demonstrators and prototypes much faster, while the Army utilises its Futures Command, Capability Development Integration Directorate (CDID), and cross-functional teams (CFTs) to coordinate the FVL requirements and to develop future modernisation plans.
Furthest along in terms of maturity is FLRAA, even though FARA is scheduled to enter service some two years before it.
Much of the development risk for FLRAA was identified during that program’s Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD) program which saw both contenders build and fly prototype designs – Bell with its V-280 Valor tiltrotor design, and Sikorsky-Boeing with their SB>1 Defiant coaxial rotor and pusher prop concept.
JMR-TD also provided funding for several companies to prototype and test mission systems architecture, and all the results gleaned from JMR-TD have allowed the US Army to develop its requirements for FLRAA. And while FLRAA is currently a US Army program, the US Marine Corps and US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) have also issued RFIs to industry for a similar capability.
Following a successful JMR-TD program, both Bell and Sikorsky-Boeing were awarded contracts in March 2020 to proceed to a competitive demonstration and risk reduction effort (CD&RR) to further develop their aircraft. Both teams had already built full-scale technology demonstrators and successfully explored their low and intermediate-speed flight envelopes over more than a hundred hours of flight testing since 2018 and 2019, respectively.
“These agreements are an important milestone for FLRAA,” US Army aviation program executive officer Patrick Mason the said in a March 16 statement. “The CD&RR continues to transition technologies from the JMR-TD effort to the FLRAA weapons system design. We will be conducting analysis to refine the requirements, conceptual designs, and acquisition approach. Ultimately, this information and industry feedback are vital to understanding the performance, cost, affordability, schedule risks and trades needed to successfully execute the FLRAA program.”
The current FLRAA program schedule has the US Army awarding a preliminary design contract in the fourth quarter of 2021. The successful system will proceed to a preliminary design review (PDR) in the second quarter of 2023, with first flight of the production representative prototype in the third quarter of 2024 followed by critical design review (CDR) in the fourth quarter of 2024 and service entry scheduled for 2030.
Much more ambitiously, the US Army’s light-scout requirement is considered more urgent. As such, it is expected to start fielding its successful FARA design in 2028, despite currently being less advanced than FLRAA.
In order to accommodate the accelerated development, the US Army will conduct rapid prototyping, fly-off and follow-on production awards. After an RFP was issued in September 2018, concept development awards were issued to five companies in April 2019, including a teaming of AVX and L3Harris, Bell Helicopter, Boeing, a teaming of Karem Aircraft and Northrop Grumman, and Sikorsky.
In March. the US Army announced it had shortlisted two companies – Sikorsky with its Raider X coaxial rotor and pusher prop design, and Bell with its 360 Invictus – to proceed to competitive prototype (CP) development. The FARA announcement came less than two weeks after the FLRAA shortlist announcement, with the same two companies tasked to compete on both programs.
The Raider X is based on Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider which has been flying for several years, and the technology and configuration developed for it has also been applied to its larger SB>1 Defiant FLRAA contender.
“Through our mature S-97 Raider technology demonstrator, we continue to optimize our FARA solution, which will provide the Army with an integrated weapon system that combines speed, range, manoeuvrability, survivability and operational flexibility,” Sikorsky’s vice president of future vertical lift, Andy Adams said in a March 25 statement. “This approach is driving down risk and will result in an aircraft solution that is capable of executing the Army’s joint all-domain operations.”
Bell is yet to fly its 360 which is a more conventional single rotor and shrouded tail rotor design, although it says many of its systems and dynamic components will be leveraged from its larger commercial 525 program which was recently certified.
“Bell is proud to continue work on the Bell 360 Invictus as part of the Army’s FARA Competitive Prototype competition,” Bell’s vice president of advanced vertical lift systems, Keith Flail told DefenseNews. “We have made significant investment and begun manufacturing in order to preserve the Army’s schedule for FARA CP and we are thrilled to continue our work on the Invictus.”
Both aircraft feature long and low-slung fuselages, a chin-mounted cannon, tandem cockpits, faceted fuselages and detailed shaping, shrouded rotor heads, and internal weapons bays. Many of these elements appear to be aimed at providing a reduced radar cross section compared to the current AH-64E Apache and other attack/armed reconnaissance helicopters.
The FARA program schedule plans for the two shortlisted prototypes to be flying by November 2022, the fly-off to be conducted in 2023, a production contract to be awarded to the winning design in 2024, and service entry is scheduled for 2028.
Both FARA and FLRAA are hoping to achieve higher speeds, greater range/endurance, and higher levels of survivability than the aircraft they are designed to replace, while also incorporating superior levels of integrated systems, sensors, electronic warfare systems, and weapons.
Sikorsky’s X2 and follow-on S-97 Raider prototypes have both demonstrated their ability to fly at more than 200kts, with the X2 holding the world helicopter speed record of 280kts. By comparison, an AH-64E has a top speed of about 190kts without external weapons. The larger FLRAA is aiming to be able to fly at speeds up to 300kts and have a combat range of more than 500nm (940km), well in excess of a Black Hawk’s 170kts and 300nm (550km).
The successful FARA aircraft will be a weapon system equivalent to a 5th generation fighter, incorporating F-35-like data-fusion and robust datalinks to provide the crew with enhanced battlespace awareness from numerous onboard and off-board sensors.
Most onboard sensors will likely be conformal or embedded within the airframe to preserve the aircraft’s low radar cross-section. Off-board sensors will include those carried by tactical and strategic unmanned aerial systems (UAS), AEW&C, satellites, ground-based joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC), and fixed or mobile ground-based sensors such as those in ground-based integrated air defence systems (IADS). All will feed data into the aircraft’s weapon system to provide unprecedented situational awareness.
Like FARA, the FLRAA will also have a much higher level of sensor integration compared to the federated ‘add-on’ systems of its predecessors. With a view to developing FLRAA into special mission variants as has been done with the Black Hawk family over the years, provision will be made in the airframe and in the aircraft’s combat system to accommodate sensors, weapons and other future-growth payloads as new roles emerge.
FVL & AUSTRALIA
The timing of the FVL program is potentially useful for the ADF. The Australian Army is currently looking to replace its Airbus Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) under Project LAND 4503, while it will be seeking a replacement of the Airbus MRH 90 Taipan medium-lift helicopter and the Tiger’s subsequent replacement from 2040.
The LAND 4503 tender process is in its final stages, with the three contenders – Boeing with the AH-64E Apache, Bell with its AH-1Z Viper, and Airbus with an upgraded Tiger augmented with a number of H145Ms – having submitted their proposals. Selection is due to be made in the next few months.
If the Apache or Viper are selected, these aircraft will start to enter service in 2024/25, and will achieve an initial operational capability (IOC) in 2027/28. Both aircraft are capable, offer US-common off-the-shelf solutions through an FMS sales process, have mature parent-service sustainment systems in place, and all their capabilities are well understood.
With a projected 15-20 year life of type, Apache or Viper should be in service until at least the mid-2040s in order to realise a return on investment. Both aircraft have been developed from vastly less-capable systems over decades – the early 1980s AH-64A Apache, and the Vietnam-era AH-1J Cobra – and there is no reason to assume their sensors, avionics and weapons capabilities won’t continue to be enhanced over the next two to three decades.
But Apache and Viper – and Tiger – are at the outer edge of their performance envelope. They will never be able to fly faster or further, or carry more than they can now.
In the January-February 2020 issue of ADBR, we took a closer look at Airbus’s upgraded Tiger option. The Australian Army currently operates 22 Tigers but has a requirement for 29 new aircraft to replace them. And because it is unlikely new-build Tigers would be available to make up the required numbers, Airbus has offered seven H145M helicopters to augment the 22 upgraded Tigers.
The chance that Army would choose to retain and upgrade the Tigers was once considered by most observers to be relatively low, especially after an adverse Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report which outlined its protracted development, sustainment and capability issues. But its chances have been bolstered in recent years by improved availability and reduced sustainment costs, as well as a quite compelling financial case to retain it.
Airbus claims it could upgrade the Tigers and acquire the H145Ms for less than $1 billion, whereas the acquisition of 29 Apaches or Vipers along with associated training, spares, ground support equipment, FMS fees, and other systems has been estimated to cost at least $3 billion.
That $2 billion saving could be redirected by Army towards other projects such as its goal to move Tiger or its replacement to Townsville, or it could be returned to Government to be put towards other parts of the budget. Another possibility is that part of those savings could be invested in joining the FVL program as a possible cooperative development partner.
It’s not just the Army which could benefit from acquiring FVL earlier from a capability point of view. If successful, it promises to deliver thousands of aircraft to the US military and allied forces, and there could be big opportunities for Australian industry to participate in the development, production, and sustainment of these aircraft over the next half century.
That option is possibly the most compelling, as it would not only give Australia a seat at the table for defining the FVL initial and future requirements but would also provide opportunities to Australian industry to manufacture components and support systems for FVL. This would meet one of the key goals of the Morrison LNP Government which is to give Australia’s defence industry greater export opportunities as well as cementing its place as a fundamental input to capability (FIC).
If Tiger is retained and upgraded, with a large proportion of the upgrade work being done in Australia, it could be phased out in the early 2030s in favour of FARA. But if Tiger is replaced by Apache or Viper, any opportunity to cooperate on FARA’s development would likely be lost due to the planned post-2040 timing to replacing them.
ADBR understands the effort to replace Tiger is causing some friction between Army Aviation and CASG. Army naturally wants a new aircraft and the off-the-shelf capabilities it will come with – with Apache reportedly the favourite – while CASG is reportedly more interested in the actual short-term and potential longer-term benefits for industry on upgrading Tiger and then going to FVL.
There is no doubt there is some risk in upgrading Tiger, especially as the alternatives will meet the requirements ‘out-of-the-box’, although Airbus and Army have learned much about the aircraft in recent years. Conversely, it would be much easier to integrate an upgraded Tiger as the training systems, ground support equipment, and spares and sustainment pipelines are already in place.
Additionally – while not yet announced – with Airbus’s H145M being a leading solution for Army’s Project LAND 2097 Phase 4 special forces support helicopter requirement, there will be obvious operational and training benefits in augmenting the Tigers with the same type.