The U.S. Army has revealed new details about what it wants from its high-speed, long-range replacement for the UH-60 Black Hawk series of helicopters. The service’s goal is to have the first examples of this future assault rotorcraft in service by 2030, with additional variants for U.S. Special Operations Command and the U.S. Marine Corps following soon thereafter.
The Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation issued a request for information regarding what the service formally calls the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) on Apr. 4, 2019. FLRAA is part of the over-arching Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, through which the service hopes to replace all of its existing helicopters.
If the Army keeps to its proposed schedule, it will award a contract for the rotorcraft – which could be an advanced compound helicopter or a tilt-rotor design – in late 2021. The plan is then to have the selected aircraft make its first flight in 2024 and have the first fully-equipped unit operational with the type six years after that. There is no estimated total purchase order at present, but the service does have more than 2,000 UH-60s of all types across active duty units, the Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard.
The Army wants the FLRAA to have a top speed of 250 knots, or more than 285 miles per hour, and potentially up to 280 knots, or more than 320 miles per hour. The maximum speed of the Army’s latest iteration of the Black Hawk, the UH-60M, is still under 200 miles per hour.
The FLRAA should also have an unrefueled combat radius of 200 nautical miles and possibly over 300 nautical miles. The threshold requirement for rotorcraft’s maximum range, which it could use to self-deploy to forward locations, would be at least 1,725 nautical miles, while the objective goal is 2,440 nautical miles.
The final design needs to be able to accommodate 12 passengers in crash-resistant seats, up to 4,000 pounds or cargo, or some combination of both. It will also have an external cargo hook able to lug around at least 10,000 pounds and hopefully up to 13,100 pounds.
The Army needs the FLRAA to be able to operate in so-called “hot-and-high” environments. The rotorcraft has to retain at least 95 percent of normal power to the rotors even at altitudes up to 6,000 feet and in temperatures of up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, while carrying 12 passengers and enough fuel for a combat radius of 120 nautical miles, and perform a 500 feet-per-minute climb out of the landing zone. If possible, the service wants the design to lose no power at all under these conditions.
You can see the Army's full threshold and objective requirements below:
The Army plans for the FLRAAs to have an approximately 50-year long service life with the help of future upgrades to “increase capability and maintain relevancy,” according to the request for information. The service has also a target average unit price for the FLRAA design at $43 million in 2018 dollars.
This is substantially higher than what the service is paying now for UH-60M Black Hawks. The flyaway cost for an M model in its latest budget request for the 2020 Fiscal Year is around $15.5 million. It is significantly cheaper than the flyaway cost for new V-22 Osprey, though. In its Fiscal Year 2019, budget proposal, the Marines say its new MV-22s have a flyaway cost of $76 million.
U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which would be primarily looking to replace the MH-60s within the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, has only a few publicly stated additional requirements. These are the need for a kit to make the aircraft capable of mid-air refueling and a specific demand that the rotorcraft remains capable of fitting into a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft just like the current Black Hawks.
The Marine Corps, which the request for information says could begin buying their own service-specific FLRAA variant two years after the Army awards the initial contract, have much more extensive demands. These are driven largely by the Marines’ need for the rotorcraft to be able to operate from ships in maritime environments, but this service also envisions using them for close air support, deep air support, which the Marines define as any air strikes against targets that do not involve close cooperation with friendly forces on the ground, as well as other armed operations.
The stated requirement for up to 350 aircraft in total would allow the Corps to replace all of its AH-1Z Viper gunships and UH-1Y Venom armed utility helicopters, as well as some of its MV-22 Ospreys, if required. However, the Marines specifically say they do expect their FLRAA variants to also serve as Osprey escorts, something the service has also proposed as a mission for armed drones in the future.
With all this in mind, the Marines are looking for a design with a combat radius of at least 365 nautical miles and potentially more than 450 nautical miles, much greater than the Army’s requirements. To be able to cover those distances rapidly, the Corps is looking for something with a cruising speed of 275 knots, or more than 310 miles per hour, and a top speed of 305 knots, or over 350 miles per hour. This equivalent to the performance of the service's existing MV-22 Ospreys.
If possible, they’re hoping to adopt a rotorcraft that can hit 295 knots while cruising, or almost 340 miles per hour, and have a dash speed of 330 knots, or nearly 380 miles per hour. At present, the world speed record for a non-jet-augmented compound helicopter is less than 300 miles per hour. Jet-augmented helicopters, as well as tilt-rotors, have been able to get close to the threshold speeds the Marines are looking for, but could still have trouble meeting their objective requirements.
The Marine Corps is only asking for space for eight troops in its FLRAAs, but also requires that they have a slightly greater overall internal payload capacity compared to the Army's versions. As with SOCOM, Marine FLRAAs will need to be capable of mid-air refueling, too.
The Marines are also eying dedicated attack and utility variants, further pointing to a potential plan to replace its existing AH-1Z and UH-1Ys. Interestingly, the service wants both types to be able to deploy their own small drones to help support their operations.
You can see the full Marine-specific requirements below:
There is no mention specifically of a requirement for the FLRAA from any other service. The U.S. Air Force and Navy have expressed interest in various portions of the larger FVL program in the past.
In addition, within the Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation, it was the Multi-National Aviation Special Project Office (MAPSO) that put out the request for information. MAPSO’s main focus has been on so-called “non-standard” aviation programs aimed mainly at foreign countries, including purchases of Mi-17 Hips and MD 530 Little Birds.
This could indicate existing interest for foreign allies and partners who also operate Black Hawk fleets. The FLRAA could also be an attractive choice in small numbers to foreign operators who are looking for Osprey-like capability for more specialized missions, such as special operations or search and rescue roles, at a lower cost.
Right now, the leading contenders for the FLRAA program are Bell’s V-280 Valor tilt-rotor and the SB>1 Defiant, from a team-up between Sikorsky and Boeing, which you can read about in more depth here and here, respectively. These two designs are set to face off against each other first as part of the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstration program, which the Army is leading and has said will help inform the final FVL program requirements.
Smaller aviation firms AVX and Karem Aircraft have indicated that could be interested in competing, as well. Airbus Helicopters has announced plans to take part in the Army’s separate Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program, which you can read about in more detail here, but has not mentioned plans to participate in the FLRAA competition.
It is worth noting that the acquisition timeline the Army has laid out now also shows that the Black Hawk will remain in service for many years to come, long after the first FLRAAs begin arriving. Depending on the complexity and operating costs associated with the final FLRAA design, the Army might end up deciding to keep the traditional helicopters in certain roles, as well.
The Army isn’t planning to issue a contract to buy these new rotorcraft until 2021, but it does want responses to its request for information by this time next week. So we may not have to wait too long to begin getting more information on the possible contenders for the service’s future Black Hawk replacement, which might also supplant a number of other helicopters in service across the U.S. military and with American allies and partners abroad.
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