Skip to main content

Video Above: Top Army Weapons Buyer Details Future Attack Technology

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Laser-guided Hydra 70 rockets, RF-driven Hellfire missiles, Spike NLOS weapons, the emerging Joint Air to Ground Missile and even unanticipated, yet-to-exist weapons will all fire from Bell’s new 360 Invictus, a stealthy, high-speed attack helicopter being offered for the Army’s Future Assault Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA).

Bell’s 360 Invictus

The new helicopter, now shown in a series of just-released, sleek-looking photographs, is designed with a smooth, stealthy, rounded fuselage, single rotor, back tail rotor and internal weapons bay, intended to reduce radar signature, increase speed and agility, introduce new paradigms for sensing and targeting and fire a new generation of long-range, precise air-attack weapons.

BELL_360_DSC09362

The aircraft is now 90-percent built, developers explain, as Bell engineers await the anticipated arrival of the helicopter’s new engine, the highly-efficient, new Improved Turbine Engine (ITE), or T901-GE-900 (T901). Once the engine arrives, the attack helicopter will essentially be ready to fly. The Bell approach, which seeks to accommodate, anticipate and potentially help advance Army requirements for the new aircraft, which will fly alongside and potentially replace some upgraded Apache attack helicopters. Bell’s Invictus 360 is now being evaluated by the Army alongside Lockheed-Sikorsky’s Raider X FARA offering.

Future Assault Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA)

“The FARA program for us with the United States Army is really two baselines. One is the competitive prototype. We are over 90% built. Essentially, we're waiting on the engine, which will be released from GE to the Army here later this year. But we're also developing the Increment One weapon system. So I've got a lot of engineers that are doing weapons system development,” Chris Gehler, Vice President and Program Director Bell 360, Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft, told Warrior in an interview.

Clearly the Invictus 360 helicopter is built with an ability to fire Hellfire, JAGM and other existing cutting edge weapons systems, yet key elements of its future arsenal remain an open question. This may in large measure be by design, given that emerging technologies are presenting new weapons options rapidly such as lasers, EW systems, AI-enabled in flight course correcting and longer-range, more precise targeting. Therefore, it would make sense that engineers would seek to build the aircraft with a specific mind to upgradeability.

Alongside the many open questions regarding the aircraft’s future weapons configuration, the Army has set clear parameters for FARA to fire a 20mm cannon. However, the internal weapons bay will accommodate yet another critical function highly sought after by the Army, and that is an ability to launch mini and even medium-sized attack and surveillance drones called Air Launched Effects (ALE).

BELL_360_DSC09073

These mini drones, demonstrated with great effect by the Army in 2020 during its Project Convergence experiment in the Arizona desert, can operate forward from a manned helicopter to identify targets, send back real-time intelligence data and video or even operate themselves as explosives and explode enemy targets. They were an essential element of the Army’s successful AI-enabled networking kill web during project convergence which shortened the sensor-to-shooter timelines from minutes…to seconds.

Weapons and Payload

The Bell Invictus 360 is specifically built to execute this mission, with an 82-inch long payload bay configured to reduce drag and also carry weapons and ALE for a wide range of missions.

“The payload bay is defined by the Army for us. They're using those parameters and they're providing guidance to the ALE developers. Really an ALE medium and ALE large have about the same footprint, maybe the diameter is a little bit bigger, so they're thinking about the FARA payload bay,” Gehler said.

The payload bay and internal weapons capacity also brings the added advantage of reducing the helicopter's radar signature. Certainly protruding, sharp edges and shapes such as weapons pylons or angled configurations are likely to generate a clearer rendering or return signal for enemy radar. While the exact extent of the 360s stealth properties may not be available for understandable security reasons, the visible external shape and internal weapons bay do seem to exhibit radar signature reducing capabilities. For example, the existing Army Apache has a sharp, rectangular-like structure and protruding, angular weapons pylons, among other things, design aspects not seen on the Bell Invictus.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

“The landing gear goes inside, the weapons pylon goes inside, so we don't deploy the weapon systems out in the air to cause drag until the pilot needs to employ,” Gehler explained.

BELL_360_DSC08938

The versatility of a longer, multifunction payload bay seems quite significant, as it enables both the possible use of a wide range of weapons but also supports the launch of mini-drone targeting and attack ALE. Bell has been working with the Army to execute this.

“The wing is structured such that it allows the payload mechanism to come out here and pull out the weapon systems. Then you can fire from either side. This is part of the collaboration that we have with the Army and the manufacturers such that we have the clearance on the deployment of the ALE such that it can get past the aircraft and then deploy,” Gehler explained.

The design approach is intended to engineer a flexible, iterative and adjustable helicopter with mission systems, targeting, avionics and weapons systems all engineered for continuous modernization and upgrades as new technologies emerge. This is accomplished through what Bell developers describe as a Modular Open Systems Architecture (MOSA) approach wherein a common foundation of technical standards are built in to enable ongoing upgrades and adaptations such as software enhancements or weapons improvements.

“We can begin the development of the next weapon system, even as we're getting information off the competitive prototype right now….so what you see is the aircraft that is pretty much complete, minus functional checks and the engine looks great,” Gehler said.

Interoperability

Much of this is done at the level of “1s” and “0s,” meaning common sets of IP protocol designed to enable interoperability and “open” standards such that new technology can be added without having to rebuild or replace hardware configurations. Gehler explained that it has a “generic computational capacity in various mission control computers.”

BELL_360_DSC09028

“If you want to bring on a new piece of mission equipment, and you have the published open standards and parameters to design for plugging into the backbone, then the Army can plug in your gear similar to a USB “plug and play concept”, and that reduces testing and reduces cost. It reduces SCHEDULE and therefore is able to upgrade very rapidly,” Gehler said.

New AI-enabled targeting, high-fidelity long-range sensing, hardened communications systems and advanced datalinks are emerging so quickly, which is why a MOSA approach is considered so vital. The platform itself is, in its entirety, being built for future warfare and continued innovation. Part of these dynamics will be assessed by Army developers who are preparing to grade the FARA offerings according to how well it flies, the quality of its design and the extent to which the offering meets cost and schedule expectations.

“We're getting various design iterations that allow us to make the weapon system itself, the air vehicle, and all the mission equipment that will come together in one development design that we will be graded on,” Gehler said. “The Army wants to fly before they buy, so this is a competitive prototype. That allows engineers to do multiple design iterations.”

An ability to make substantial improvements quickly through MOSA not only increases efficiency, speed of modernization and lowers costs but also brings the critical advantage of lowering weight. Agility, speed and aerial performance are all key performance parameters impacted by weight, so optimizing operational functionality at lighter weights generates highly sought after advantages for engineers.

“FARA is a platform that can add capability and reduce weight by not having to add boxes. You're writing a software program right into a computational capability that is already there, and you are dematerializing it into software, using that digital backbone to pipe it to the systems that need it,” Gehler said. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization