FVL has predominately been a US Army-led initiative, with the service currently focused on acquiring new light scout and long-range helicopters to replace around half of its AH-64 Apache fleet and UH-60 Black Hawks under the FARA and FLRAA efforts.
The USN’s FVL Maritime Strike programme, which seeks a ‘family of manned and unmanned’ systems to replace MH-60R/S Seahawk helicopters and MQ-8B/C Fire Scout UAVs, has now started in earnest too, and an analysis of alternatives RfI was issued to industry on 28 January 2021. However, it will be mid-2030 at the earliest before IOC for any new naval aircraft is declared.
If meeting timeline and contract award targets are fair indicators of success, then the US Army should rightfully be credited with executing FARA and FLRAA in line with expectations, but there is still a long way to go before judgement can ultimately be passed not just on acquisition spending but the difference made to frontline aviation capabilities.
It should also be mentioned that the House Committee on Appropriations raised concern over FVL payloads and sensors, claiming in a July 2020 report that the US Army had not ‘clearly defined’ an acquisition plan for the equipment. ‘Due to the accelerated FVL schedule and the desire for high technology readiness level sensor payloads, the army risks fielding advanced aircraft platforms equipped with outdated payloads that will not meet desired operational capabilities,’ the report states.
While such a verdict does little to inspire confidence, analysts believe that FVL has been well managed and continues to run according to plan. ‘From what’s able to be observed from the outside, progress looks to be good and I know competitors have been working hard at refining designs since building demonstrators,’ explained Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
‘There’s a huge focus on cost control, bringing down manufacturing costs and building in sustainability so the army can afford to own these new aircraft. The other point that’s worth making is that the army has been engaged in a lot of serious analysis about how these aircraft will be used in future operations, looking at peer competition and different concepts of operations in different areas of the world,’ he added.
Despite this type of due diligence and executing downselect decisions on time, FVL has faced fierce criticism because of past US Army aviation acquisition failures and an underwhelming track record of procuring new helicopters – one exception being the Airbus UH-72A/B Lakota, based on the EC145 twin-engine commercial design. First deliveries of the newer UH-72B – of which 18 have been ordered – are scheduled to take place later this year, following Airbus completing a last delivery of 463 UH-72A helicopters in Q3 2020.
‘The light utility helicopter [Lakota] has succeeded off a commercial design, but other [US Army] efforts didn’t and that has created some scepticism about the probability of success in fielding two newly designed aircraft in close proximity to one another,’ Hunter said.
Addressing the issue of which out of FARA or FLRAA the army would choose to prioritise if it was forced to do so, MG Walter Rugen, director of the FVL Cross-Functional Team (CFT), US Army Futures Command, suggested that scenario is ‘a false choice’ during a 17 March AUSA Global Force media briefing.
‘Obviously, our number-one gap is in FARA, the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, but I don’t view it as a choice because… it’s not that we couldn’t do one [modernisation effort] with Comanche, we couldn’t do five,’ Rugen said.
He was referring to the fact that the army is much better placed to be fielding two new helicopters compared to the 1990s when overambition in planning upgrades for the AH-64, UH-60A, CH-47C and OH-58C together with the Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche ultimately ended with the latter being cancelled. ‘The inflection point [transition to new helicopters] is far readier, risk-wise, to jump to the future,’ he explained.
Life on the line
Even so, based on future contracts for FARA and FLRAA, the US Army could also set in motion a series of events that, without exaggeration, could go on to have a profoundly detrimental impact on domestic military rotary-wing competition.
Bell and Sikorsky are competing for both FARA and FLRAA, so a scenario where one or the other receives both production contracts would force the losing side to seriously reconsider whether it can sustain business with legacy aircraft production lines or if drastic action has to be taken.
Such a picture is slightly more nuanced in that Sikorsky and Boeing are partners for FLRAA, but analysis of industry fortunes has tended to focus mainly on competition between Bell and Sikorsky – perhaps because the latter’s X2 technology sits as the cornerstone of the design for the Raider X (FARA) and the Defiant X (FLRAA).
‘I think if they don’t split these contracts between the two companies [Bell and Sikorsky], we will probably see some industry consolidation in the sector and somebody will then not have a future for the US military,’ said Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank.
If they don’t split these contracts between the two companies, we will probably see some industry consolidation in the sector.
‘If both contracts are won by the same supplier, it likely would be very challenging for whoever didn’t win to continue as a viable military aircraft producer,’ Hunter added in a similar vein.
At industry level, the fear of one major manufacturer retaining production contracts for FARA and FLRAA is much less concerning than the prospect of both efforts not transitioning to programmes of record. That is effectively seen as a worst-case scenario which entails devastating consequences for OEMs and suppliers.
‘My first concern would be about the programmes not going ahead… because that would have a much greater impact than having one manufacturer [for both], because if only one wins, there are still two major programmes and a [healthy] level of supply chain work will continue,’ said Chris Gehler, VP for FARA at Bell. ‘Between our supply base and our competitors there is also a lot of overlap.’
Gehler admitted that Bell’s major military aviation lines of effort covering the V-22 and AH/UH-1 are smaller than those of Sikorsky (UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-53K King Stallion) and Boeing (AH-64 and CH-47), but he stopped short of predicting whether or not one manufacturer could survive after losing out on FARA and FLRAA.
‘I’d say there’s probably more of an impact to Bell Textron if we were not to win compared to Lockheed Martin [Sikorsky’s parent company] – the largest defence contractor in the world,’ he confirmed. ‘The other US services operating the V-22 would probably be more concerned too; or from a national [DoD] perspective, keeping modern tiltrotor technology alive and progressing [would be difficult].’
On defence industrial base matters, Jay Macklin, Sikorsky’s business development director for FVL, said in a statement: ‘We have a long-standing partnership with the US Army and trust they will conduct a fair, unbiased competition and select a winner based on the merits of their offering and ability to meet contract requirements.
‘As we’ve worked with the army during the FLRAA draft RfP process, neither they nor the DoD have raised this as a concern or influencing factor. As 50/50 partners in the FLRAA competition, Sikorsky and Boeing have a proven, established and robust network of suppliers that sustain the critical rotorcraft industrial base.’
A gulf in aircraft testing and development for FARA and FLRAA favours a split contract decision, although that is not a perspective publicly expressed by industry competitors or army sources, and decision-makers will base awards on additional criteria, including unit and maintenance costs, in addition to how well the helicopters can support modular open systems architecture requirements.
‘In order to preserve the integrity of the programme during this competitive phase, the army cannot comment further,’ an FVL CFT spokesperson said when asked about aircraft development issues.
At one end of the development spectrum, Bell started assembly of the 360 Invictus for FARA at company facilities in Amarillo, Texas, in Q4 2020. The OEM expects the aircraft to be developed and built around 18-24 months faster than the V-280, with first flight, as required by the army, due to take place in Q1 FY2023. It will also use a simulated ‘aircraft zero’ or ‘identical twin’ to the 360 Invictus, using a systems integration lab, which is expected to ‘fly’ this summer.
The mid-assembly version, however, is a single-engine, fly-by-wire helicopter that features a fixed wing and tandem cockpit from the 525 Relentless super-medium civil platform and, as stipulated by the army, will also be fitted with a 20mm cannon and an integrated munitions launcher compatible with air-launched kinetic effects.
‘It looks like an aircraft from tip to tail,’ Gehler said of Invictus assembly progress on 17 February, confirming that the cockpit has been installed, weapons bays are ‘being built out’ and skins are being applied. ‘There’s a lot left to do, but it’s looking great,’ he added. Bell will have an official aircraft reveal for Invictus once assembly has been completed ‘later in the year’, according to Gehler.
In contrast, Sikorsky has been testing the S-97 Raider compound coaxial helicopter since first flight in 2015, before opting to offer the Raider X for FARA – an enlarged version with a 900kg weight increase, necessary to accommodate higher weapons payloads. Like the 360 Invictus, Raider X also features fly-by-wire technology. By so doing, both manufacturers are essentially offering the army automated take-off and landing capabilities.
At a test level, the S-97 Raider has previously recorded speeds of 207kt in level flight and 215kt during shallow dives and is capable of flying at 150-160kt with its pusher prop disengaged, according to Sikorsky.
More recently, the manufacturer has been using digital thread and virtual prototyping tools to ‘maximise’ Raider X capabilities. ‘These virtual models are highly reliable, physics-based simulations of our design that provide early discovery, minimise redesign and enable future upgrades to be efficient and affordable,’ said Macklin.
FARA has already met one major milestone in 2021 after an Abbreviated Capabilities Development Document covering weapons system requirements was approved by the army on 9 April. Other targets for the year include mission systems integrator studies in Q3 FY2021 and execution of the Experimental Demonstration Gateway Exercise (EDGE) and Project Convergence 21 preparation in Q4 FY2021.
‘EDGE 21 specifically focuses on connecting JADC2 [Joint All-Domain C2] to the lower tier of the air domain by extending the reach and lethality of the FARA ecosystem (using surrogates for FARA, long-range effect surrogates and air-launched effects),’ the FVL CFT spokesperson explained. ‘This extension of reach and lethality will demonstrate the ability to affect shaping operations at extended ranges and operate in theatres that our current fleets do not support.’
Outside of exploring newer air power concepts, one other critical element that FARA relies on is the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) that sees General Electric (GE) contracted to build the 3,000shp-rated T901.
A decision on which engine will power FLRAA has still to be taken, but the logic for holding off is based on the ‘distinctive designs’ involved and the army not wanting to dictate a requirement that could benefit one competitor over another, according to COL Roger Kuykendall, project manager for advanced turbine engines, US Army. ‘I think the [engine] decision point will come next summer when FLRAA downselects to one OEM,’ he confirmed.
If manufacturers decide to stick with the engines used during flight tests, then the V-280 Valor tiltrotor will continue to be equipped with GE’s T64 and Defiant X will use Honeywell’s T55, the same powerplant found on CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.
To win the ITEP engineering and manufacturing development contract, valued at $513 million and awarded in Q1 2019, the T901 had to meet set requirements of producing 50% more power, improving fuel consumption by 25% and reducing life-cycle costs, compared to the T700 powering army Apaches and Black Hawks.
At a design level, the new engine uses single-spool core technology where each rotating component in the compressor and gas generator is housed within one shaft and rotates simultaneously. It also features an inlet particle separator incorporating sand-resistant materials and is proven to increase sand separation efficiency, compared to the T700, according to Kuykendall.
‘We use advanced aerodynamics in the compressor, turbine and power turbine that allows us to get much more work from each stage of the compressor, meaning we get higher pressure ratios and better efficiencies from an aerodynamic standpoint,’ said Mike Sousa, business development lead for advanced rotorcraft programmes at GE. ‘Those aerodynamic designs are based on computational fluid dynamics tools that we’ve validated on previous programmes.’
The hot section of the T901 will also benefit from ceramic matrix composite (CMC) technology, consolidating on similar experimentation by GE integrating CMC turbine blades into an F414 demonstrator engine. CMC-made parts are replacements for nickel alloys, weighing one-third less and are also able to be cooled faster and with less air.
‘Keeping the metal temperatures down without having to overwhelm them with cooling air is a big part of how we make performance advantages for the T901 versus what we did on our previous generations,’ Sousa added.
The immediate focus for GE and the army is to plan and prepare for ITEP’s First Engine to Test (FETT) phase scheduled to start in October 2021. This will see all subcomponents of the T901 assembled and the engine started for the first time.
FETT also includes the T901 receiving a Preliminary Flight Rating (PFR) without which first flights for the 360 Invictus and Raider X would not be possible, as well as planned T901 development testing using AH-64 and UH-60 aircraft. ‘PFR will encompass Final Software Release, Ballistic Testing and a System Verification Review,’ the FVL CFT spokesperson confirmed.
Regarding the Apache and Black Hawk development tests, the point at which the PFR is obtained, Bell and Sikorsky will each work with a government-designated test pilot to conduct ground runs and flight trials, assessing whether there is any negative impact or degraded performance after the T901 has been installed on the helicopters, according to LTC Travis Harris, ITEP programme manager, US Army. For airworthiness purposes, approximately 900 flight hours from development tests are being targeted.
At a basic manufacturing level, however, development of the T901 has not been straightforward, owing to operational difficulties caused by COVID-19. ‘GE and its vendors have had to execute the engine development while balancing layoffs, closing business locations, and states have enacted strict travelling restrictions limiting vendor site visits,’ Kuykendall explained.
‘We’re doing our work today not with the team that we would have expected at the beginning of the programme, which is both positive and negative,’ Sousa shared.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, the entire T901 design and systems engineering team had been located on two floors at GE’s Lynn, Massachusetts, facility – a time when the team ‘were at the peak of our engineering effort’, said Tom Champion, T901 programme director.
Remote working has since become routine and a virtual Critical Design Review (CDR) with the army was successfully completed in Q3 2020. ‘That [CDR] was difficult, and I would also say that it’s been challenging to work through manufacturing of parts with our supply chain because it is dispersed across the country,’ Champion added. ‘It is really useful to be able to walk the [production] floor, see where the parts are and see where issues are, but we’ve had to do all that virtually.’
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Outside of standard parts for the T901 which are sourced from a number of different GE facilities, Champion estimated that the company works with around 100 suppliers, including ‘a few players we rely on’ for electronics, but he added that there is no single point of failure across the entire supply chain.
Considering the difficulties faced by GE, especially the disruption caused to the manufacturer’s T901 engineering team and having to restrict supplier site visits, it is remarkable that ITEP targets have not suffered in any meaningful way. However, should any technical issues or faults be found prior to or during FETT and AH-64 and UH-60 development testing, the accelerated timeline upon which FARA rests could become unstuck.
Indeed, analysis looks to indicate quite clearly that little is amiss where V-280, 360 Invictus, Raider X and Defiant X developments are concerned, notwithstanding pressure to refine designs, but the longer GE is exposed to a downturn in commercial aerospace, the greater the chances are of it having to reshape military aviation plans. Also, if talent has already been lost from the T901 engineering team, how to guarantee it will not happen again?
Staying on track
Overall, joint efforts between the army and helicopter manufacturers, alongside strong investment on both sides, have led to considerable FVL progress, the like of which sits in marked contrast to past rotary efforts that have failed to meet expectation.
Recent progress for FLRAA, for example, includes Bell and Sikorsky-Boeing both receiving Competitive Demonstration and Risk Reduction Phase 2 contracts from the US Army worth $292.65 million (Bell) and $284.39 million (Sikorsky-Boeing).
However, as threats from US enemies become ever more sophisticated and a need for greater stand-off range dominates strategic thinking, operational success will depend not only on acquisition of next-generation aircraft but also on being able to keep up with the trends and possibilities identified from wargaming scenarios and test exercises like EDGE and Project Convergence 21.
Finally, should FARA and FLRAA not reach programme-of-record status, not only will various US OEMs and suppliers be placed in vulnerable economic positions from which some are unlikely to recover, but allies will miss an opportunity to take advantage of ground-breaking rotary-wing technology that they had long looked at with intrigue and admiration, hoping to acquire it when the time was right.