FVL: The Army’s 10-Year Plan For FARA Scout « Breaking Defense
WASHINGTON: The Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program is much bigger than the two ambitious high-speed helicopters that Bell and Sikorsky will now get more than $1 billion to build. At least five other major moving pieces must come together on time to turn the final aircraft, whoever makes it, into a working weapon:
The Army is “not just focused on the air vehicle, but focused on the weapon system,” said Brig. Gen. Walter Rugen, Future Vertical Lift director at Army Futures Command, in a call this morning with reporters.
Here’s the current schedule for everything to come together:
- April: The Army awarded five contracts for “initial designs” of the FARA aircraft itself.
- March: The Army assessed the five initial designs – including each company’s ability to deliver on budget and schedule. Yesterday, they chose Bell and Sikorsky to build prototypes.
- Each company has already received a “digital model” of how their design must conform to the Modular Open Systems Architecture (MOSA), which will allow the government to plug-and-play MOSA-compliant components from any company, not just the manufacturer, over the life of the program, program manager Dan Bailey said: “We, the government, will control the interfaces internal to the aircraft so we can efficiently upgrade.”
- December: The Army will conduct a Final Design Review of both designs to confirm “that they are postured for success and risk is acceptable,” Bailey said. “After that, they will begin to build the aircraft.”
- Bell and Sikorsky build their prototypes. Despite their very different designs, each company must incorporate certain common Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) provide by the Army. That includes a 20mm cannon; the GE T909 Improved Turbine Engine, which will also be retrofitted to existing Apache and Black Hawk helicopters; and the Integrated Munitions Launcher (IML), which will use MOSA interface standards to connect missiles and ALE mini-drones to the aircraft – without having to modify the aircraft each time a new weapon is developed.
- If the Army’s 2021 budget request is approved, this year the service will buy $152 million of Spike NLOS (Non-Line-Of-Sight) missiles from Israel armsmaker Rafael as an interim Long Range Precision Munition.
- Bell and Sikorsky begin ground testing of their prototypes.
- The Army fields Spike-NLOS missiles on existing aircraft across three Combat Aviation Brigades (CABs), providing both immediate combat power and hands-on experience with the technology to refine either the Spike or a competitor into the full-up LRPM.
- November: The Bell 360 Invictus and Sikorsky Raider-X fly for the first time. Flight testing begins.
- Summer: The prototype aircraft move from their builders’ test sites to Redstone Arsenal to begin Army flight testing with all-government crews. The Army finalizes its formal requirements for FARA based on how the prototypes actually perform.
- Fall: The Army conducts a Weapons System Preliminary Design Review – that is, not of the aircraft alone, but of how all the pieces work together – and, in context of that holistic assessment, selects either Bell or Sikorsky to build the aircraft.
- By December 31st: The Army launches an official Program Of Record (POR) to acquire FARA. While the first few aircraft will cost more, the service’s long-term goal is to spend no more than $30 million per FARA, the same price as the current AH-64 Apache gunship.
- The Air-Launched Effects (ALE) mini-drones begin to enter service on existing Army aircraft. As with the Spike missile, this early deployment provides both immediate military benefit and the necessary experience to refine the technology for FARA.
- The first FARA aircraft enter operational service. The Army hasn’t specified how many it ultimately plans to build or for what price. But the Army’s Program Executive Officer (PEO) for Aviation, Patrick Mason, told reporters today that “I have no reason to disagree with” widely circulated independent estimates of 300-400 aircraft for $15-20 billion.
“We’ve got a series of gates” over the years, Mason said. “This is a constant assessment as we go through, and this is really the beauty and benefit of the prototyping design of this program: We will get to see both vendors as they go to their final designs and they build their prototype air vehicle, as we simultaneously carry forward [with] the other elements that are part of the FVL ecosystem.”
“We’re going to see very, very clear indication of the technology maturity, the readiness, and the ability of the prototype aircraft to meet the requirements,” he said.
Novel Contracts, Novel Technology, Tight Schedule
It’s worth delving into some detail on what happened yesterday, when the Army announced that Bell and Sikorsky would get the chance to build competing prototypes of FARA – the Bell 360 Invictus and the Sikorsky Raider-X – while designs from AVX, Boeing, and Karem were rejected. Each of the five companies had received up to $15 million for design work, while Bell and Sikorsky will each get up to $735 million more to build and test their prototypes. The exact figures are competition-sensitive, and each vendor has invested much of its own money in any case. The contracts call for one-third private funding and two-thirds government funding over the design and prototyping phases combined, but the companies have almost certainly outspent the government so far.
Technically, FARA program manager Dan Bailey told reporters, “we actually aren’t awarding anything at this time.” Instead, last April, all five contenders got Other Transaction Authority Prototyping (OTAP) contracts for both the design and prototyping phases, but with clauses allowing the Army to cut any vendor at any time. It’s that option they’ve just exercised.
Rather than making an award, Bailey said, “yesterday, we notified two that we would continue to fund them into Phase 2 and we notified three that we would stop funding them.” (Emphasis ours).
This novel approach, among other benefits, is nigh-impossible for losing bidders to appeal against, Rugen said: “There really is no ability to protest per se with the GAO [Government Accountability Office]. There is legal recourse potentially through the courts but, again, our legal team has advised us the risk is low.”
That’s helpful because – as the JEDI cloud computing contract proves – legal battles can delay Defense Department programs for months. The Army has a tight timeline for FARA, which it sees as essential to fill the gap in its aerial reconnaissance capability left by the retirement of the aging and much-upgraded Bell OH-58 Kiowa.
While the competing designs are very different, Army simulations so far show that either would meet the military needs
“Both are advanced rotorcraft configurations,” Brig. Gen. Rugen said. “Both did very well with speed, range, endurance at range, in our European scenario.… The power [for] takeoff with payload out of ground effect was also, again, leap-ahead.”
The Bell 360 Invictus is basically a conventional helicopter with small wings for added lift, using fly-by-wire and rotor technology developed for the civilian Bell 525. The Sikorsky Raider-X is a compound helicopter with coaxial rotors and a pusher propeller for added thrust, derived from Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider – which is a real, flight-testing aircraft – and ultimately the award-winning X2.
“The X2 technology continues to impress,” Rugen said. While Bell’s design may not have struck some observers as revolutionary, he said, “the efficiency” with which Bell’s engineers stripped out every possible bit of drag – allowing much higher speeds – “was truly innovative. “We’ve got two great competitors … on a program that we must deliver for the Army,” Rugen said.