MAKICHUK: US Army swapping its scout helos for drones

An artist's conception of Bell's 360 Invictus FARA prototype.
An artist's conception of Bell's 360 Invictus FARA prototype. Bell Textron

In a move that has stunned Washington, DC, the US Army announced a massive shift in its aviation strategy, upending years of planning.

And it is largely because of Ukraine, Gaza and budgetary constraints.

War in the modern era has undoubtedly changed and the Army decided to take action.

Speaking to a small gathering of reporters at the Pentagon, the head of Army Futures Command Gen. James Rainey told reporters the US Army is cancelling its next generation Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program, taking a potential multi-billion-dollar contract off the table and throwing the service's long-term plans into doubt.

“We absolutely are paying attention to world events and adjusting, because we could go to war tonight, this weekend,” Rainey said on February 8, Breaking Defence reported.

The announcement means that Bell Textron and Lockheed Martin Sikorsky whose rival 360 Invictus and Raider X were in competition to be selected as replacements for OH-58 Kiowa Warrior Scout helicopter that the Army retired in 2019 — will forgo approximately US$5 billion in development and contract funding, Forbes magazine reported.

With abandonment of FARA, the Army has abandoned the US$2 billion it has already spent on the program.

In addition, the Army plans to end production on the UH-60 V Black Hawk in fiscal 2025, due to “significant cost growth,” keep General Electric’s Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) in the development phase instead of moving it into production and phase the Shadow and Raven unmanned aerial systems out of the fleet, Breaking Defence reported.

“We are learning from the battlefield — especially Ukraine — that aerial reconnaissance has fundamentally changed,” Army Chief Gen. Randy George said in a press release.

“Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space are more ubiquitous, further reaching and more inexpensive than ever before.”

Drones that cost thousands vs. weapons that cost millions. It was inevitable.

What is happening in Ukraine has turned the military world on its head.

Sikorsky's coaxial Raider X will not see service with the U.S. Army as a Kiowa Warrior replacement.
Sikorsky's coaxial Raider X will not see service with the U.S. Army as a Kiowa Warrior replacement.Lockheed Martin Sikorsky

The tentative plan, if Congress approves a fiscal 2024 spending bill with FARA dollars in it, is to keep FARA development going this year, in part to protect the industrial base and continue testing.

However, come October 1 when FY25 kicks off, the FARA  development will come to an end — if the service gets its way. Congress will have to weigh in, Breaking Defence reported.

Fallout from the Army’s new plan will likely be swift from both Capitol Hill, the industry and analysts — all stakeholders the Army needs to win over in order to, keep their FY24 request intact and change course in FY25.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces (TAL) Subcommittee, issued a first reaction to the decisions saying it requires “serious scrutiny” from Congress.

“To better assess the administration’s proposal to terminate these aviation programs and divest legacy platforms, I plan to hold a hearing this spring on Army aviation rebalancing, the path forward and the health of the industrial base,” he wrote in a statement.

On the industry side, Bell and Sikorsky have spent years and a large number of their own dollars working on the prototypes, while GE has worked on the long-delayed ITEP, Breaking Defence reported.

Both prototype helos were slated for first flight this year but it is now unclear if or when they will ever get there.

Sikorsky declared that, “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 US and international mission needs now and in the future. We are disappointed in this decision and will await a US Army debrief to better understand its choice.”

The Army plans to end production on the UH-60 V Black Hawk in fiscal 2025.
The Army plans to end production on the UH-60 V Black Hawk in fiscal 2025.Wikimedia Commons

Bell said it is, “disappointed by the decision on the FARA program. Bell remains confident in our ready-to-test FARA prototype for the Army’s requirements. We will apply the knowledge and demonstrated successes of our FARA development efforts on future aircraft.”

While observations from places such as Ukraine and Gaza are part of the impetus for FARA’s cancellation, the need to free up billions of dollars to invest in unmanned systems was also a prime factor, Rainey and other aviation leaders explained.

As for the engine slated to power FARA, the service isn’t pulling the plug on it right now — but it is slowing it down. 

The T901 Improved Turbine Engine is meant to have 50% more horsepower and 25% better fuel efficiency and will also replace some of the Army’s legacy powerplants.

All AH-64E Apaches and UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, currently powered by the T700 engine that first started flying Black Hawks in the 1970s, have been planned to have those GE engines swapped out for the T901, according to the Army.

And despite the dramatic upheaval impacting FARA, its sister Future Vertical Lift program — the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) — is to continue as planned, with the Bell V-280 Valor tiltrotor still set to enter operation in 2030.

While FARA may be dead, Army leaders still envision a future with aviators in a cockpit, at least for now. But in the short term, they have expressed a need to spend more on unmanned capabilities.

“Indisputably the requirement to conduct reconnaissance and security is a valid and remaining requirement: It’s not going anywhere,” Rainey said.

“The requirement to be able to conduct reconnaissance and security is still absolutely valid,” he later added.

“Just how to do it, and how much risk to accept and … the future is going to be about who can properly integrate humans and machines effectively.”

Scout helicopters swapped for drones. Welcome to the new world.

The interior of the Sikorsky Raider X cockpit at AUSA 2023 in Washington, D.C.
The interior of the Sikorsky Raider X cockpit at AUSA 2023 in Washington, D.C.Photo by Dave Makichuk

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