Launching drones at high speeds to track and attack enemies on the move, finding pockets of hostile forces amid uneven, mountainous terrain, unloading chain gun fire down upon concentrations of dispersed enemy fighters and bringing suppressive fire in support of advancing infantry are all missions the Army’s new Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft are expected to perform.
The new platform, Army senior leaders tell The National Interest, will bring new dimensions to forward scouting, advanced networking and drone attacks in coming years. In recent years, the Army awarded development deals to Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, and Bell for the platform, which is intended to replace the now-retired Kiowa Warrior helicopter.
Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA)
“The best way to describe the FARA is it is going to replace the Kiowa Warrior—which we retired a few years ago. We took Apaches and put them into the scout role, but Apaches were never designed to be a scout aircraft. This won’t replace the Apaches that are in the fleet, but it will replace the Apaches that are in the scout role,” General John Murray, Commanding General, Army Futures Command, told TNI in an interview.
Naturally a huge emphasis with this program is to achieve truly unprecedented and unparalleled levels of pure operation speed.
FARA: RAIDER X
A FARA offering from Sikorsky called RAIDER X could provide the Army exactly those transformational technologies that it needs in the future fight, should early signs continue to show promise.
The RAIDER X is intended to build upon breakthrough progress made earlier by Sikorsky with its X2 Technology Demonstrator, a high-speed coaxial rotorblade helicopter which set new records by flying more than 250 knots in 2010. Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider helicopter in 2019 hit 207 knots. Sikorsky’s FARA will expand upon and “scale” the S-97 as it develops its RAIDER X prototype.
“The growth that RAIDER X has inherently built into the X2 design, to be able to take increased power, the large weapons bay volume which will increase the amount of ordnance, which will increase situational awareness that these crews will have. It will really deliver an unsurpassed capability to those ground maneuver commanders that are out trying to execute this really tough fight,” Jay Macklin, Sikorsky business development director, Future Vertical Lift, told The National Interest in an interview.
The RAIDER X builds upon and extends Sikorsky’s highly successful coaxial counter rotating rotor blades which, among other things, helps the aircraft achieve breakthrough speeds while stabilizing flight trajectory and enabling a thrusting mechanism at the back of the aircraft.
Since the balance of the two rotor blades moving in opposite directions stabilizes and straightens flight path, there is not a need for a rear “side” rotor, a scenario which allows for a rear-thrusting propeller. This rear thrusting propeller leverages aerodynamic windflow to add thrust and forward propulsion, fortified by engine-generated torque or “twisting power” sent through a shaft to the rotor.
It may seem rather self-evident, yet there are a handful of precise ways in which paradigm-shifting levels of attack and recon-helicopter speed inform the tactical equation. A scout helicopter traveling at speeds faster than 220 knots is of course more survivable, meaning it could approach, surveil and take off from a high threat area potentially before being detected or certainly be very hard to target.
Advanced speeds, combined with a more fuel-efficient engine can also greatly reshape combat radius dynamics. The initial requirements for the FVL were to achieve a combat radius of 434km, roughly twice the distance of existing helicopters. That means missions can operate with a decreased need for what’s called FARPs, Forward Air Refueling Positions.
In short, the new FARA will be able to conduct longer, faster, more lethal missions. Furthermore, when coupled with the kinds of next-generation, long-range sensors and targeting technologies now in development for FARA, scout helicopters can easily double as fast-attack platforms.
FARA: Stealth Technology
Then there is the question of stealth, as the fuselage does appear decidedly stealthy and less likely to generate a return radar signal in the way Apaches, Kiowas or Black Hawks might. The shape is smooth and cylindrical with virtually no sharp edges, jagged contours or protruding structures more likely to give enemy radar a “rendering” based of a greater number of electromagnetic return “pings.” Multiple pings from different sharp or detectable shapes give radar commanders a much clearer picture of the “dimensions” to a given aircraft.
Internally lodged weapons of course are a key element of stealth technology to be sure, and available renderings of the RAIDER X show a rounded exterior, raising the possibility that the helicopter operates with an internal weapons bay able to extend and retract weapons.
FARA: Operating Drones
A signature trait of the FARA will likely be its ability to operate drones from the cockpit in real time, building upon the successful operation of manned-unmanned teaming in recent years with the Army’s Kiowa and Apache.
Helicopter crews have been able to control the flight path and sensor payload from the cockpit to provide considerable tactical advantage. Apache pilot have, for instance, been able to identify enemy targets found by drones before even taking off for a mission.
It is likely with these tactical factors in mind that Murray told me about how Army plans for the FARA include the use of manned-unmanned teaming with an emerging new drone called Future Unmanned Aerial System.
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In a combat circumstance, for instance, FARA could, by itself or in tandem with forward-operating drones it controls, test heavily fortified enemy defenses, attack enemy targets, send back real time video of enemy attack positions and gather other sensitive combat intelligence information such as terrain, navigational or air-threat challenges.
Certainly many attributes being designed into the RAIDER X are not likely to be available given that requirements may still be in the process of being refined and adjusted with a mind to future technological approach.
FARA: AI and Machine Learning
Command and control, targeting and the analysis of sensor data are likely to be heavily shaped by emerging AI and Machine Learning technology. As machine learning and AI-enabled computer systems become both more advanced and more available, helicopter flight crews will be able to command multiple drones at one time and rapidly access organized sensor data.
Advanced algorithms can already gather, analyze and transmit key information from an otherwise disparate or stovepiped series of sensors, performing near real-time analytics discerning precise enemy targets, positions, and movements. Certain programs can also analyze context and assess a host of fast-changing variables in relation to one another—such as weather, altitude, enemy movements, terrain and navigation details.
Of course AI will expedite and improve the functionality of on-board mission systems and computing, enabling faster target acquisition and data networking between a range of nodes to include manned helicopters, drones and ground control nodes.
Future Vertical Lift: Controlled Flight Into Terrain
Along these lines, the Future Vertical Lift program has been developing an emerging automation technology called Controlled Flight Into Terrain, a computer-enabled system which can temporarily take over flight of an helicopter in the event that a pilot is incapacitated due to combat injury.
Such a technology, which will continuously update its database through machine-learning, can help avert collisions with the ground or surrounding terrain—and possibly even sustain some kinds of reconnaissance missions before landing safely.
Years ago, this kind of technology, described as something to “ease the cognitive burden” upon human pilots, was first identified as HMI—human-machine interface. The concept is to free up more dynamic characteristics associated with human decision-making by relying upon computer automation, and now AI and Machine Learning, to perform otherwise time-consuming analysis and procedural tasks.
Such a technical synergy is intended to best leverage those many qualities unique to human cognition.
Degraded Visual Environment (DVE)
Both the FARA and legacy platforms such as the Apache operate with emerging technology known as Degraded Visual Environment (DVE)—a technical system which safely navigates the aircraft in a “brown out” type of scenario where vision or standard line of sight is lost.
Perhaps a snow storm or windy desert landing might otherwise force a helicopter to crash by virtue of losing awareness of where the ground or a nearby mountain is. In such a scenario, the DVE system would preclude that type of disaster. Also, one long-standing requirement for FARA, and frankly other helicopters as well, is described as an ability to operate in high-hot conditions (6,000 feet, 95-degrees F) where atmospheric conditions can make it much harder to operate helicopters.
RAIDER X & Apache Attack Helicopter
Another key point stressed by Murray is that, while the RAIDER X may reshape modern helicopter warfare, it will not replace the massively upgraded Apache attack helicopter.
While it might be a Big 5 1980s-era platform, In recent years it has received a new, much more powerful 701D engine, composite rotor blades, new, more reinforced exterior coatings, longer-range MTADS (advanced targeting sensors) and focal plane array small arms fire detection systems.
As a platform built to withstand small arms fire, Apaches have over the years been engineered with various kinds of detection technologies. These technologies, which have been in the form of focal plane arrays searching for an infrared heat signature from small arms fire and things like acoustic signatures designed to find the “sound” signature of incoming fire. There have even been light-detecting sensor systems engineered to locate the muzzle flash coming from enemy weapons.
One developmental acoustic system was called Ground Fire Acquisition System and yet another was called Hostile Fire Detection System.
Finally, as for being built for the future, the current E-model advanced Apache is particularly built to accommodate new weapons applications as they emerge such as a HELLFIRE replacement or new laser-guided rocket application. The Apaches, therefore, are expected to fly alongside the FARA for as many as several decades into the future.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. 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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.