Army Lays Out Plans For Pilot-Optional ‘Knife Fighter’ Attack Reconnaissance Rotorcraft

The service says it wants flying prototypes by 2022 and that it could have the first examples in service six years afterward.

byJoseph Trevithick|
U.S. Army photo


The U.S. Army wants to have two different optionally-manned “attack reconnaissance” aircraft prototypes – almost certainly advanced helicopter or tilt-rotor designs – ready for a competitive fly-off by 2022. Part of the service’s larger Future Vertical Lift program, the rotorcraft could help fill the gap left when it prematurely retired the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, offer a possible replacement for some AH-64 Apache gunships and MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones, and may offer some of the capabilities that were supposed to come along with the abortive RAH-66 Comanche stealth helicopter.

On June 22, 2018, the U.S. Army Futures Command released a draft solicitation for the proposed Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft Competitive Prototype, or FARA CP, project, on the U.S. government's main contracting website, FedBizOpps. As it stands now, the service wants to pick two finalists in 2020 and have the prototypes make their first flight in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2023, which begins on Oct. 1, 2022. The Army is looking for feedback on its initial plan by July 18, 2018, and the final version could feature a different timeline. 

“The Army currently lacks the ability to conduct armed reconnaissance, light attack, and security with improved stand-off and lethal and non-lethal capabilities with a platform sized to hide in radar clutter and for the urban canyons of mega cities,” the draft contracting document says. “To close this gap, the Army envisions an optionally manned, next generation rotorcraft with attributes of reduced cognitive workload, increased operational tempo … through ultra-reliable designs and extended maintenance free periods, and advanced teaming and autonomous capabilities.”

The solicitation goes on to say that the Army envisions a “knife fighter” that will maximize performance in as small of a package as is reasonable. The aircraft will feature systems that can be rapidly upgraded, expanded upon, or replaced thanks a standardized software interface. This is something the service is pursuing as part of other efforts to make it easier and cheaper to update systems on aircraft and ground vehicles in the future.

US Army AH-64 Apaches, the service's primary attack reconnaissance aircraft at present., US Army

Depending on how the Army implements this systems architecture, it could help support the aircraft’s autonomous capabilities, as well. The U.S. military as a whole has become steadily more interested in using artificial intelligence and machine learning to help make things easier for manned crews in aircraft and vehicles, especially by helping to filter through increasingly large amounts of sensor data and other information. These systems could also suggest the most optimal courses of action in a particular situation, such as most effective flight route to a destination or the best vector to attack a specific target.

Those same features will help enable the aircraft’s ability to work with other unmanned aerial vehicles and potentially fly without a manned crew itself. Manned-unmanned teaming in particular, such as the ability to seamlessly share information with drones or even issue commands to those unmanned aircraft, is a key requirement of the FARA CP program. The Army has already been actively testing the ability of its existing manned helicopters to work together with pilotless planes, such as the MQ-1C.

The “tethered” drones could scout ahead, effectively increasing the area a single manned rotorcraft could reconnoiter at once. It could also help reduce the risk to the crew by sending the unmanned aircraft ahead to scout for possible hazards first.

A pilotless craft could also potentially carry electronic warfare jammers or kinetic weapons, such as small guided missiles or glide bombs, to attack those targets and clear a path for the manned helicopters to follow through. This is to say nothing of the weapons and other systems the final FARA design will carry itself.

A US Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone., US Army

The draft solicitation heavily alludes to this concept of operations. “This platform will be the center piece of the integrated air defense system … breeching [sic; breaching] team,” it says.

And though it’s not mentioned spherically in the document, the Army has made it clear the electronic warfare, and electronic attack specifically, is very important to the FARA concept in the past. “We want [these aircraft] to be able to spoof those radars, jam those radars, hunt those radars and kill those radars,” U.S. Army Brigadier General Walter Rugen, the deputy commander of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division and head of the service’s Future Vertical Lift Cross Functional Team (CFT), said at the Association of the United States Army's Global Force Symposium in March 2018.

So far there has been no mention of any stealth features for the FARA, which were a major part of the RAH-66 program. The new concept shares much of the same expected mission profile as the Comanche and the Army could reveal that this is a requirement for its new project later on.

The Army announced plans for eight CFTs within Futures Command to explore potential new technologies in different functional areas in 2017. The other seven teams are working on issues related to Long Range Precision Fires; Next Generation Combat Vehicle; Network Command, Control, Communication, and Intelligence; Assured Positioning, Navigation, and Timing; Air and Missile Defense; Soldier Lethality; and the Synthetic Training Environment.

During his presentation at the Global Force Symposium, Rugen, who previously commanded the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, which is forward deployed in South Korea, used the exact phrase “urban canyons of mega cities.”  His rhetorical fingerprints are unsurprisingly clear elsewhere in the draft solicitation.

Then-U.S. Army Colonel Walter Rugen, third from the right, meets with South Korean officials, in 2014. , US Army

What the draft solicitation doesn’t say is exactly what type of aircraft the Army necessarily has in mind to meet its needs. This seems almost certainly intended to help solicit the widest possible range of options to begin with.

"I have been very, very impressed with some of the PowerPoint briefs I have seen,” Brigadier General Rugen said in March 2018. “But I will tell you our soldiers can't fly PowerPoint, our soldiers can't fight with PowerPoint, so we are going to challenge industry to work closely with us to develop the Future Vertical Lift that we need for our soldiers in the future.”

A number of potentially applicable aircraft and concepts do exist already. Bell is test flying its V-280 Valor tilt-rotor, which is a competitor for the FVL program’s medium transport requirement, which you can read about in more detail in this recent War Zone feature. The company is also developing a tilt-rotor drone, the V-247 Valiant, and underlying technology from both designs could serve as the basis for a FARA competitor.

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A team consisting of Boeing and Sikorsky is also pitching an advanced compound helicopter, the SB>1 Defiant, as an alternative option in that role and has shown a concept for a gunship derived from that design.  Separately, Sikorsky, which is now part of Lockheed Martin, recently resumed flight testing of its S-97 Raider compound helicopter demonstrator, which it has shown in a potential light attack configuration in the past.

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Lockheed Martin has also been working on an unmanned, vertical take-off and landing capable logistics aircraft called the Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES). The defense contractor might be able to leverage that design, which it is developing in cooperation with helicopter firm Piasecki Aircraft, into a manned system to meet the Army’s FARA requirements.

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AVX, a smaller aviation company, has also been looking to pitch its own designs to the Army as part of the larger FVL program. The firm had previously proposed an upgrade for the service’s OH-58D aircraft that would have replaced the tail rotor with a twin fan assembly for enhanced maneuverability and overall performance.

The last of the companies that have been actively involved in the Future Vertical Lift effort so far is Karem Aircraft. The firm is proposing its own tilt-rotor concept with versions sized appropriately for transport and light attack and reconnaissance roles.

Of all of these designs, the S-97 seems the best suited to the FARA requirements as they exist now and Sikorsky had planned from the outset for the aircraft to be capable of autonomous, unmanned operation in the future. In addition, it has already been flying since 2015 and followed the highly successful X-2 demonstrator that first flew in 2008 giving it, or a more purpose-built attack reconnaissance derivative, the benefit of that existing flight test experience. A second prototype is now entering the flight test program as well.

Concept art of Karem's attack reconnaissance tilt-rotor aircraft., Karem Aircraft

Still, the Army makes it clear they're looking for two competing designs. So this leaves room for any of the other challengers to catch the service's eye in the coming years as they push forward toward a flying prototype of their aircraft.

But it’s also not clear which of these designs the Army might be most inclined to choose since the service itself doesn’t seem to have a clear understanding yet of the aircraft’s role. Though at first glance the FARA concept might seem to be a replacement for the Kiowa Warriors that it still needs, the Army also employs AH-64s in the “attack reconnaissance” role.

Older Sikorsky art showing an entire family of S-97-based helicopters. The SB>1 has largely supplanted plans for the larger versions, but the "RQ-97 Autonomous Recon Attack" concept seems almost perfectly tailored to the Army's FARA requirements., Sikorsky

It’s unlikely to be a true replacement for either of these helicopters, at least at first, though. Far from being a widely available asset, the Army says it initially expects whatever aircraft it selects for the FARA program to be a so-called “Echelon Above Division” asset, akin to the service’s specialized fixed-wing

intelligence gathering aircraft.

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What this means is these rotorcraft would not necessarily be acting in support of infantry or armored formations directly and could only be available in very limited numbers for higher priority missions in a certain portion of the battlespace. This would actually seem to fit very much with the Army's concept of employing the FARA as a system to help penetrate into denied areas rather providing routine support to troops on the ground.

It is very possible that the Army envisions using its new attack reconnaissance aircraft to help breach through and neutralize enemy air defenses in order to prepare the battlespace for more traditional helicopters and other aircraft that would otherwise be too vulnerable. Future high-end conflicts against near-peer opponents with a robust IADS network will definitely limit the ability of the service's existing helicopters to provide any support, which is something that Brigadier General Rugen acknowledged in March 2018.

A briefing slide from 2015 showing the different "echelons" of command and how the Army's aviation and intelligence gathering assets, as well as those from other services, fit into that rubric. "Combat aviation," such as AH-64s and OH-58s, are at the Brigade Combat Team (BCT) level and below. The Army expects FARA to sit in the category marked here as "tactical," above the Division level, with aircraft such as the RC-12X and the various MC-12s., US Army

"Aviation has been an asymmetric advantage for our Army and the joint force since Vietnam and LZ [Landing Zone] X-Ray," he said, referring to the famous battle in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, which has been the subject of numerous books and films including the movie We Were Soldiers. "We are not giving that up just because the air domain is tough."

The Army does say that it could eventually purchase up to 500 aircraft in the end, in two batches of 100 examples and a third batch of 300 aircraft, but there’s no clear indication of when it might expect to receive those aircraft. With more than 700 AH-64s spread across active, reserve, and National Guard units, this plan would not allow for a one-for-one replacement. The Army already needs to make up for the previous loss of around 340 OH-58Ds, too.

Furthermore, the Army's rationale for retiring the OH-58Ds without a direct replacement was that it had become too expensive and complicated to operate that fleet in addition to its other, more predominant helicopter types. The FARA would add a new and relatively small fleet of advanced rotorcraft that will likely be more costly to operate compared to the service's traditional helicopters.

The Army's OH-58F prototype. The service had planned to upgrade its OH-58Ds to this configuration before deciding to retire the entire fleet instead. , US Army

This may not be an issue now, given President Donald Trump's push to continue expanding the defense budget. There's no guarantee that will still be the case in 2022, which will be near the end of Trump's possible second term, or under the administration of the next president. 

The Army could be forced to sacrifice other initiatives to preserve this particular project, or FVL as a whole, or scale back its rotorcraft ambitions to support any number of other advanced projects it is pursuing already. At the same time, the implication is clear that something like FARA is essential to the service being able to continue providing aviation support of any kind in higher-risk scenarios.

The Army says that if everything goes to plan, it could reach initial operational capability with whatever aircraft it selects in 2028. The service does expect to complete a system requirements review by the end of 2019, nearly a decade beforehand, which could help clear up the service’s actual plans for the FARA program.

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