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Rotary reversal – what does FARA cancellation mean for the US Army and its NATO allies?

21st March 2024 - 01:03 GMT | by Edward Hunt

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This analysis article originally appeared in March's Decisive Edge Air Newsletter.

Until last month, the US Army had been pressing ahead with a comprehensive replacement plan for almost its entire in-service rotorcraft fleet under the Future Vertical Lift umbrella.

With the Bell V-280 tiltrotor selected for the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) programme, and a protest from the losing bid team of Sikorsky-Boeing dismissed, this effort was moving relatively smoothly from the technology demonstrator stage to a production aircraft... Continues below

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Above: Neither Sikorsky’s Raider X (above) nor the competing Bell 360 Invictus will now take to the skies as part of the FARA programme. (Photo: Sikorsky)

It therefore came as a surprise in early February that the next element of the programme – the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) – had been cancelled. There had been no strong indications that this might occur, and arguably one lesson from Ukraine was that higher-performance helicopters were required to survive in an intensive battlefield environment.

Yet the announcement was unequivocal in specifying that the entire FARA project had been terminated, not delayed or reassessed.

This situation has a sense of déjà vu as the US Army has a history of cancelling attack/reconnaissance helicopter programmes. This latest saga is reminiscent of the 1960s Advanced Aerial Fire Support System programme (nominally won by the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne) and more recently the Light Helicopter Experimental effort (which produced the RAH-66 Comanche).


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The latter presents a complete mirror of FARA’s cancellation: the Comanche saw significant budget expenditure, very little physical output and a sudden termination based on concerns over survivability and a better capability being derived potentially from uncrewed vehicles.

The cancellation affects more than the putative aircraft. FARA was intended to be part of a wholesale modernisation of US Army aviation and as such leveraged elements of the Improved Turbine Engine Program that was also intended for application on AH-64 and UH-60 aircraft.

While that may continue in isolation, it is inevitable that momentum will be lost. Concurrently, the army has also stated that retirement of its Raven and Shadow small UAV fleet will continue but with the prospect of a new Future Tactical UAS by around 2025-26.

In the short term, funds will be diverted to sustainment and modernisation of the AH-64D/E fleet and – reversing a previous decision – procurement of CH-47F aircraft. The UH-60V upgrade will also continue, although it is not clear how many Black Hawks this will cover and for which branch of the army.

The UH-60M will remain as the core of the fleet and likely see some form of synthesis with newer versions that were envisaged as part of the pathway towards the wider FVL programme.

It has been stated, repeatedly, that this announcement in no way impacts other elements of the wider FVL effort, in particular FLRAA which will remain in development for fielding in the late 2020s.

With one key rationale for FARA’s cancellation being survivability as noted above, it is possible that the established FLRAA design may be reviewed and evolved, but at present the need for rapid transport has been deemed less questionable than crewed armed ISR efforts.


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Meanwhile, a similar joint effort by European NATO powers has seen slow progress. The Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC), begun in 2022, aims to replace aircraft in the AW101 bracket and will involve a wholly new design.

A key difference between this and the US FVL is that the platform is termed a ‘rotorcraft’ rather than ‘vertical lift’, and while the difference is to a degree one of semantics, it does suggest a different approach where a hybrid design or mixed force is less probable than a traditional, albeit advanced, helicopter.

However, the recent renewal of collaboration between Bell and Leonardo on tiltrotor development may open the programme up to a more ambitious design. Bell had worked with Leonardo’s predecessor Agusta in the 1990s on the BA609 (now AW609) tiltrotor but the joint venture was subsequently dissolved.

Above: Leonardo has resuscitated its tiltrotor partnership with Bell, with one likely driver being the emergent European NGRC requirement. (Photo: Leonardo)

The success of Bell’s V-280 for FLRAA has reignited enthusiasm at the Italian company to press for a new partnership rather than continue with the slow-moving AW609 programme independently.

The experience of Bell with the older V-22 and now the V-280, particularly in overcoming the technical difficulties that plagued early Osprey operations, will be undoubtedly of great use.

This does not mean that the AW609 is a preferred option for NGRC, and the fact that it still remains more of a technology demonstrator (despite having first flown over 20 years ago) than a mature contender counts against it at this stage.

Although the IOC for the new platform is not before the 2030s, historical and/or perceived difficulties with tiltrotors in US service may drive some of the European programme’s participants towards a preference for a less complex aircraft.

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It appears the US Army has become keen to avoid falling for the chimera of a common aircraft for a diverse series of roles (F-35, take a bow…) A single FARA design rather than a mixture of – probably uncrewed – platforms can be understood as a concern.

The risk of obsolescence may also have been a factor. This is supported by a senior army acquisition official stating earlier this month that the service could move away from multi-year UAS buys as the pace of technological change might leave it with systems that were outdated before they were delivered, something that may equally apply to crewed rotorcraft.

That very advanced nature of the FARA contenders may also have weighed heavily – the programme was effectively an FLRAA rematch between Bell and Sikorsky with designs that pushed the envelope of the conventional helicopter. Selecting a further new and untested platform would add another variable to the future force and likely drain budget as it was developed.

Nonetheless, key requirements for FARA were high speed at low altitude alongside range and persistence, as well as new weapons and C4ISTAR elements that are inevitable with any next-generation system.

Above: The FLRAA programme in the form of the V-280 is not under threat, the US Army says, but the final design may need to evolve further given the service’s rethink of future capabilities. (Photo: Bell)

These capabilities remain in high demand and are of course well served by a rotary-wing platform. Despite significant advances in uncrewed aircraft, effectively dropping the entire piloted attack and recon fleet is a somewhat risky venture.

The decision should also be viewed in the light of previous US defence procurements. Too numerous to list, there are endless examples of projects that were lavishly funded for years then dropped versus those that were only put together and fielded very late in the day. For US Army rotary-wing capabilities, cancellation of FARA could mean, frankly, anything or nothing.

With an in-service goal of 2030 for FLRAA, there exists a relatively relaxed timeframe that allows output from the development phase to guide force evolution and indicate whether further new crewed platforms are necessary. Lessons learned from Ukraine will undoubtedly be used to determine capability requirements across the whole range of what FVL may or may not now become.

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