The AUSA 2019 exhibition made it clear what a high-speed helicopter of the future could be for the American army. However, the intrigue around the final of the FARA tender will remain on the agenda for a long time.
Future Vertical Lift program
From October 14 to 16, the AUSA (Association of the United States Army) exhibition of military equipment and weapons was held at the Washington Convention Center. The exhibits presented there tell little to a person who is not interested in military equipment: in appearance these are ordinary models, concepts and "pictures". In fact, not only multibillion-dollar contracts are at stake, but also the direction of evolution of helicopter technology. However, first things first.
The end of the Cold War and the development of UAVs slowed down the development of new combat helicopters. The Boeing / Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche program was closed back in 2004, spending, by the way, a fantastic amount on it - more than $ 8 billion. As a result, the Ground Forces were left with proven, but frankly old machines, even if they had gone through more than one stage of modernization. The main workhorse of the US Army, the multipurpose Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, began production way back in 1977, when the Huey began to age. In turn, the basis of the attack "winged cavalry" - the AH-64 Apache - first took to the skies back in 1975. Well, the heavy transport Chinook found even the Vietnam War: it comes from the 60s.
The worst is the case with light reconnaissance helicopters. Recall that the US has already taken out of service the "veteran" Bell OH-58 Kiowa, and Apache has partially taken over its functions.
Purely hypothetically, even now it is possible to leave everything as it is, dispensing with the modernization of existing helicopters, despite their considerable age. However, the United States decided otherwise, launching a large-scale Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program in the 2000s, designed to create a whole line of new rotary-wing aircraft. They should replace almost all other helicopters - from Kiowa to Chinook and even partially C-130J Super Hercules military transport aircraft.
It looks like this:
- JMR-Light: replacement for the light OH-58 Kiowa;
- JMR-Medium-Light: intermediate option;
- JMR-Medium: replacement for UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache;
- JMR-Heavy: replacement for CH-47 Chinook;
- JMR-Ultra: very large and lifting device of a fundamentally new class with vertical takeoff and landing.
As you probably already guessed, we will talk about JMR-Light, which is also known as FARA (Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft). Don't be confused by the word "light" or "reconnaissance". The new helicopter will become only a conditional follower of the simple OH-58: in fact, it will be a completely different device with new capabilities, which will be conceptually closer to the unrealized Comanche than to any other US helicopter.
Why did the Americans need such a "wunderwaffe"? The reason lies in the strengthening of the PRC, as well as in the Russian factor. The new machines are designed to ensure the absolute technological leadership of the United States in the field of helicopter construction for many decades to come. The US Department of Defense signed design contracts under FARA in 2019.
There are five manufacturers in total:
- AVX Aircraft (in partnership with L3Harris Technologies);
- Bell Helicopter;
- Karem Aircraft;
- Sikorsky Aircraft.
From this number, two will be selected who will build prototypes in the 2020s. By the end of the next decade, a winner should be determined who will produce the serial helicopter. Now let's see what exactly is offered in the framework of Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft.
Let's make a reservation. The appearance and characteristics of machines (even within the framework of one specific project) may change more than once during bringing to mass production. The best example is Raider-X.
One of the most interesting and, equally important, realistic FARA projects. It, like the project from Karem Aircraft, was first shown at the AUSA exhibition. However, the word "for the first time" is more than arbitrary. The Raider-X high-speed helicopter project is based on the Sikorsky S-97 Raider, which was the development of the experimental Sikorsky X2 helicopter. That, in turn, is based on the Sikorsky S-69. In all cases, the ABC (Advancing Blade Concept) concept was applied.
Briefly, its essence can be described as follows.At high speeds, the retreating propeller blade moves at a speed close to the flow rate and cannot produce lift. This limits the speed of the rotorcraft. But! You can introduce two coaxial propellers (something similar we see on the Ka-50/52), which have two swash plates that can change the angle of attack of the retreating blades. Due to the symmetrical scheme, it is possible to neutralize the effect of a drop in the lift force on the retreating blades, and the main lifting force will be created by the leading blades.
The S-69 had one gas turbine engine and two turbojets, due to which it was able to reach speeds of 500 kilometers per hour. All subsequent machines - X2, S-97 and Raider-X - received, except for one coaxial propeller, an additional pushing in the rear of the fuselage.
First flown in 2015, the S-97 is capable of a cruising speed of approximately 410 kilometers per hour and a maximum speed of 440. The Raider-X will have similar performance. Experts expect that with a General Electric T901 engine, the Raider-X helicopter will be able to reach speeds of about 380 kilometers per hour, which is also much higher than the speeds of existing and even a number of promising helicopters. The UH-60L, for example, has a cruising speed of only 282 kilometers per hour and a maximum speed of 296.
It should be noted that the requirements of the FARA tender are relatively modest: the cruising speed should be 333 kilometers per hour. In general, all participants in the competition meet or potentially meet this requirement of the US military.
But what exactly is the peculiarity of the new helicopter? The main difference between the Raider-X and the S-97 Raider was its size: the new version of the rotorcraft is 30% larger than the old one. This will theoretically allow more weapons and more troops to be taken on board. We will find out the exact characteristics of the car later. In the meantime, consider the other participants in the competition.
Bell 360 Invictus
Among the most interesting new products of AUSA is the full-size model of the Bell 360 Invictus helicopter, the appearance of which we saw in the images from the Bell company. Invictus (translated as "invincible") was created on the basis of the civilian helicopter Bell 525 Relentless, but outwardly very different from its ancestor. The same goes for opportunities.
The Bell 360 Invictus differs from the Raider-X in its classic helicopter aerodynamic layout: one main rotor and one tail rotor. The new car will be able to fly at a cruising speed of 330 kilometers per hour. On external mounts, Invictus will carry up to eight air-to-surface missiles, and four more missiles can fit in internal compartments. It will probably be either the AGM-114 Hellfire or the latest AGM-179 JAGM air-to-surface guided missiles. In the JAGM Increment 3 configuration, the AGM-179 missile will be able to hit a target at a distance of up to 16 kilometers. This will make the helicopter a very dangerous enemy even for the latest self-propelled anti-aircraft systems. In addition to missiles, the helicopter will carry a built-in cannon located in the front: as in conventional attack rotorcraft.
The difference from the Raider-X was the location of the crew: the pilots on the Bell 360 Invictus are located in tandem, one after the other, and on the Sikorsky helicopter they sit side by side.
The main intrigue associated with the new car was stealth. Rather, the alleged stealth. Outwardly, the helicopter is similar to the "invisible" RAH-66 Comanche: like the old machine, it has a characteristic "chopped" shape of the fuselage, and the weapon (at least partially) will be located inside. Both are needed to maintain stealth.
However, Bell Helicopter itself does not focus on invisibility, and experts in this regard recall the Chinese CAIC WZ-10 helicopter, which is not stealth, but has a similar fuselage shape. Perhaps the Bell 360 Invictus will be partially "invisible". This approach will reduce the radar and infrared visibility by more than several times, but at the same time it will not make the helicopter extremely expensive (as you know, stealth technology is an expensive pleasure).
Joint project AVX Aircraft and L3Harris Technologies
In April 2019, L3 Technologies and AVX Aircraft Company presented the appearance of an innovative ultra-high-speed attack helicopter for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program.However, the real debut took place later, at the AUSA exhibition. Then, we will remind, the public was shown for the first time a full-size model of the car. The helicopter is equipped with one coaxial rotor and two propellers on the sides of the fuselage. Large wings are designed to create lift. The external mounts will be able to hang from four to eight missiles of the "air-to-surface" class. In addition to them, the helicopter will receive a cannon: it is in the "nose". The pilots are positioned side by side.
On the official website of AVX Aircraft there is practically no information about the new helicopter, except for general phrases. However, we know that the company does not have flying prototypes or a ready-made base for the machine of the future. This, of course, does not add the chances for the implementation of such a technically complex and even, in some sense, revolutionary project. Most likely, the brainchild of AVX Aircraft / L3Harris Technologies will not make it to the finals, giving way to more elaborate models.
Karem Aircraft AR40
Perhaps the most mysterious member of the FARA program. The American aircraft manufacturer Karem Aircraft shed some light at the Association of the United States Army. As part of the project, it is proposed to create a high-speed reconnaissance helicopter AR40 with one main rotor and a pushing propeller in the tail section. The car will receive a large wing, which creates a significant part of the lift.
The exact speed of the car is not known: Karem Aircraft says it will be 20 percent higher than what is specified in the requirements for the new helicopter. The 14-meter fuselage has a "huge" weapons bay that will house the innovative launcher. The location of the crew side by side will allow (at least, according to the developers) the pilots to better coordinate their actions.
On the one hand, they are right. On the other hand, such placement of the crew seriously limits the pilot's visibility from the opposite side. This can be a problem when solving shock problems: another plus for the Bell 360 Invictus.
As of October 2019, Boeing has yet to submit a design for a new helicopter to replace Kiowa in the US Army. Experts argue about the reasons. Perhaps it is a coma of problems that fell on the corporation after the crash of the Boeing 737 MAX near Addis Ababa on March 10, 2019. Let us remind you that 157 people died then. As the cause of the tragedy, experts named mistakes made in the creation of software, as a result of which the plane may become uncontrollable. A similar incident occurred in 2018, during the Boeing 737 disaster near Jakarta.
An investigation revealed serious problems with other Boeing passenger aircraft. In November, the company's former quality control manager told the BBC that the flagship, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, may have a serious technical flaw that could leave passengers without oxygen in the event of a sudden decompression.
Someone sees the salvation of the company in military orders, but they must first be obtained, while proving that your aircraft / helicopters are better than those of competitors.
Better or worse is difficult to say now, but the fact that a potential Boeing project may be cheaper than competitors is a fact. In 2018, the media wrote that the company intends to supply the AH-64 Apache with a push-type propeller. This will give the helicopter fundamentally new capabilities. In particular, its speed will increase by 50 percent and efficiency - by 24 percent. At the same time, the price of the modernized Apache should not increase significantly: it will increase by 20 percent compared to other versions of the machine.
The usual tail rotor will also remain: it is necessary to compensate for the torque of the main rotor. The machine will inherit many of the positive aspects of its progenitor: high survivability, excellent weapons and ease of use.
A new old helicopter can perform well and still cost less than the innovative Raider-X or Karem AR40. The vast experience of operating Apache is also important, as well as the presence of an infrastructure that allows them to maintain a high level of their combat readiness. In other words, additional savings.
Here, however, it is worth considering that we are dealing with the States, which are not accustomed to saving on weapons: otherwise, there would be no FARA competition at all, and the Ground Forces would manage with new drones that would become a replacement for the OH-58.
“Boeing fears that if it talks too much about its design, other companies can quickly use this information to significantly reduce its chances of getting ahead in the competition,” writes FlightGlobal. It cannot be ruled out that the company will reveal a fundamentally new car at the last moment: there is less and less time for this.
Are the winners on trial?
The presented projects, models and concepts do not give one hundred percent understanding of what the real prototypes of the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft competition will look like. But already now, several points can be highlighted.
Speed.Here the Raider-X, Karem AR40 and the project from AVX Aircraft and L3Harris Technologies look the most advantageous. These machines can reach top and cruising speeds that are fantastic for helicopters. This also gives rise to common disadvantages: cars are potentially more complex and more expensive.
Stealth.The stealth factor is taken into account when designing any modern combat vehicle. We would venture to assume that all contenders for victory have good performance - as for rotary-wing aircraft. However, Bell 360 Invictus looks the best. It is also more suitable for the role of an attack helicopter than others - because of the tandem location of the crew members.
Price. If Boeing creates a new Apache for the FARA competition, it has every chance to shoot. Experts on Western resources also say that Bell 360 Invictus looks good in this regard because of the more familiar layout. By the way, what the risk is, the Americans know: they always have an example of a technically problematic Bell V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, which, moreover, stands as a fifth-generation fighter - this is unacceptable for a future US Army helicopter.
What's the bottom line? We would venture to suggest that, taking into account all the realities and trends, two projects will reach the final: Bell 360 Invictus and Raider-X. The first, as far as can be judged, does not have an airborne compartment, moreover, it exists only as a model. Sikorsky has gone the farthest with its project - it is highly likely that this company will build the helicopter of the future for the US Army.
The article was published in Naked Science magazine # 47, January 2020.