Airbus recently confirmed that it had proposed a design derived from its world speed record-holding X3 compound helicopter demonstrator for the U.S. Army’s new attack reconnaissance rotorcraft program. The service has outlined requirements for a pilot-optional “knife fighter” able to operate heavily defended areas and densely packed urban environments, which could also help fill the glaring gap left by the premature retirement of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior.
Bruno Even, CEO of Airbus Helicopters, offered the new details in a briefing for the media on Feb. 18, 2019. The Army first announced its plans for what it officially calls the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft Competitive Prototype (FARA CP) in June 2018 and formally began accepting proposals in October 2018. The service hopes to evaluate between four and six designs initially before down-selecting to just two in 2020 for an actual fly off competition.
“We are looking at the FARA demonstrator program based on the technology we have developed in terms of a high-speed platform, based on the X3 in particular,” Even explained, according to Rotor and Wing International magazine. “This competency, this technology we have developed … clearly we want to leverage, then, in order to propose a competitive solution first at the demonstrator phase for the U.S. DoD [Department of Defense] program.”
Eurocopter, now known as Airbus Helicopters, first flew the X3 demonstrator in 2010. Based on the company’s AS365 Dauphin, the new design eliminated the tail rotor in favor of a pair of propellers on either side of the aircraft. Two Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM322 turboshaft engines provided power to the propellers, as well as the five-bladed main rotor system.
In test flights and demonstrations between 2010 and 2013, the X3 showed off record-setting performance. On June 7, 2013, the rotorcraft reached 293 miles per hour in level flight and more than 300 miles per hour in a shallow dive, becoming the fastest non-jet-augmented compound helicopter in the world, which remains the case to this day.
Sikorsky’s X2 technology demonstrator, another advanced compound helicopter concept, had previously held this record. The X2 has since evolved into the S-97 Raider and this rotorcraft, or a derivative thereof, will also likely be a competitor in the Army’s FARA CP program.
In 2017, Airbus announced its own new compound helicopter, the Rapid And Cost-Effective Rotorcraft (RACER), which it had developed based on experience gained with the X3. Though RACER is aimed at civilian and commercial markets, the belief is that the X3-derived concept the company is pitching to the Army will have at least a related design.
“You can also envision a military path for that technology as well,” Scott Tumpak, Airbus’ chief of military programs in North America, also said at the briefing, according to Vertical magazine. “We’re in a competitive phase right now, so we don’t want to get too far out in front by going into too much detail as to what the specific offer is.”
RACER is similar to the original X3 in basic configuration, but has the propellers pushing aft, rather than pulling forward. The fuselage design appears to be related to Airbus’ advanced H160 helicopter.
Airbus says that RACER will have a cruising speed of almost 250 miles per hour, significantly faster than most traditional helicopters. The Army’s says the FARA CP rotorcraft should have a speed of at least more than 200 miles per hour.
By comparison, the Army’s AH-64E Apache gunship has a top speed of more than 170 miles per hour. That helicopter’s manufacturer Boeing, however, is in developing a compound helicopter conversion that could boost the Apache’s speed to over 255 miles per hour.
Of course, the RACER concept would need other significant modifications and additions, including provisions for weapons, secure communications systems, and other military equipment, to meet the Army’s various requirements. The service also has demands for a design capable of operating in highly contested environments full of enemy air defenses. This could include the need for advanced features to reduce its radar and infrared signatures.
The Army has said that the FARA CP contenders will have to have robust electronic warfare capabilities, as well. “We want [these rotorcraft] to be able to spoof those radars, jam those radars, hunt those radars and kill those radars,” U.S. Army Brigadier General Walter Rugen, in charge of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift Cross Functional Team (CFT), said at the Association of the United States Army's Global Force Symposium in March 2018.
In addition, any submissions to the Army’s FARA CP program will need to be able to fly in an unmanned mode. Separately, the service, together with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is testing autonomous and semi-autonomous helicopter capabilities as part Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, which you can read about in more detail here.
Just the ability to utilize a “digital co-pilot” would help ease aviators’ mental and physical workloads, in turn reducing fatigue and improving their mission performance. The systems ALIAS is testing also offer additional backup help in an emergency, including situations where the crew might be incapacitated.
For Airbus, the FARA CP could also offer the company a pathway back into contention for major future U.S. military rotorcraft programs. In 2013, what was then Eurocopter, announced it no longer planned to submit a proposal for the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstration program, which will inform at least a portion of the broader Future Vertical Lift (FVL) effort to acquire replacements of basically all of the U.S. military’s rotorcraft.
At that time, the company said the cost of developing an advanced clean-sheet rotorcraft was prohibitive and that it preferred to focus efforts on winning the Army’s Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) program aimed at finding a near-term replacement for the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. Eurocopter's AAS-72X did not win that competition, but the program turned into a larger debacle, with the Army retiring the OH-58Ds entirely without procuring a direct replacement, something you can read about in more detail here.
FARA CP is not directly related to the future FVL effort officially, but many of the existing contenders are also expecting to compete for that various portions of that larger program with related designs. Airbus could potentially leverage a win in the FARA CP program to make a late bid for one or more portions of the FVL project, which also includes a light scout helicopter requirement.
The European aviation conglomerate is facing steep competition, though. This includes the aforementioned S-97 from Sikorsky, as well as a Bell offering, which could be derived from its V-280 Valor tilt-rotor, and a still unseen proposal from a partnership between L3 and AVX. Airbus, so far, is the only foreign bidder for the program.
At present, the Army will reportedly pick the initial group of competitors between June and July 2019. As such, we should expect to see more of what Airbus’ final proposal looks like, as well as the pitches from its competitors, sooner rather than later.
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