The U.S. Army is ending its latest effort to build a new armed scout helicopter, known as the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, an abrupt change of direction that marks one of the department’s most significant program cancellations of the last decade.
The service had already spent at least $2 billion on the program and had requested another $5 billion for the next five years, according to budget documents.
The helicopter program arrived in 2018 with lofty expectations. Army leaders hoped it would serve as a model for new acquisition approaches for its most complex and most expensive weapon systems. Prototypes from Bell Textron and Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky were expected to fly later this year. And, perhaps most importantly, the aircraft was slated to provide a long-needed armed scout solution after decades of starts and stops.
But Thursday, the Army’s top acquisition officials described a new vision and major aviation overhaul. In addition to ending FARA, the Army plans to get rid of its entire Shadow and Raven unmanned aircraft fleets, said Doug Bush, the service’s acquisition chief.
It will also stop fielding its new replacement for UH-60 Lima-model Black Hawk utility helicopter — the Victor-model — to the Army National Guard and instead field UH-60 Mike-models, the latest variant used in the active force, Bush said.
Finally, the service will delay procurement of its next-generation helicopter engine, which was set to be used in all UH-60s, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters as well as to power FARA.
Instead, Bush said the Army will spend the newly available money on Black Hawks, the latest variant of the CH-47F Block II Chinook cargo helicopter, the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft and research and development efforts to accelerate its unmanned aerial reconnaissance capability.
Gen. James Rainey, an acquisition leader overseeing the program, said he doesn’t view the cancellation “as a failure” for Army Futures Command, the Austin, Texas-based office heading the service’s modernization efforts.
“We are making great progress, we have momentum, the overwhelming majority of our signature modernization efforts are either on time or ahead of schedule and are starting to translate into capabilities,” he told reporters Thursday.
The Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, or FARA, was meant to fill Army aviation’s No. 1 mission gap: armed reconnaissance. For the last 10 years, following the retirement of the Vietnam-era OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter, which long performed that mission, the service has relied on the more expensive AH-64E Apache attack helicopter paired with the Shadow unmanned aircraft system.
The Army has already twice canceled potential replacement efforts for the armed scout. In 2004, it terminated the Comanche program after spending $9 billion to produce two prototypes.
Four years later, it canceled the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter.
In the last attempt before FARA, the service asked industry to bring commercial off-the-shelf aircraft to a “fly-off” to fill the armed scout mission, but the Army walked away from the effort in 2013, finding nothing that met all of its requirements.
Five years ago, the service unveiled Army Futures Command, a new command meant to improve the service’s modernization program track record. FARA quickly became a signature effort of the command, which was tasked with outfitting a fully modernized force by 2030.
At the same time, the Army has been advancing a second helicopter program, the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft. Bell Textron won the contract to provide its V-280 tiltrotor aircraft for the program at the end of 2022.
Skeptics have wondered if the Army can successfully procure two aircraft simultaneously, but service leaders have said they have no choice.
Asked which program he’d choose if future budgets didn’t allow for both, Maj. Gen. Wally Rugen, then director of AFC’s Future Vertical Lift cross-functional team, said the efforts are “not a ‘want to have,’ it’s an imperative.”
“Modernization is an imperative, so as long as that remains the Army priority, which I believe it will, then we’re going to continue to find ways to execute these programs,” he told Defense News in 2021. “I don’t see it as a choice.”
In a statement Thursday evening, Sikorsky said its prototype, the X2, offers “speed, range and agility that no other helicopter in the world can match.”
“We remain confident in X2 aircraft for U.S. and international mission needs now and in the future,” the statement read. “We are disappointed in this decision and will await a U.S. Army debrief to better understand its choice.”
Vision for vertical lift
Army officials said the service still needs armed reconnaissance — but the technology has changed. The service will no longer rely on a manned helicopter to execute the majority of armed scout missions and will instead look to unmanned aircraft and sensors to conduct those missions.
“The future is going to be about who can properly integrate humans and machines effectively, how do you optimize those two things,” Rainey said.
In a statement, Army Chief of Staff Randy George said the service was influenced by the battlefield in Ukraine. It has seen there “that aerial reconnaissance has fundamentally changed.”
“Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space are more ubiquitous, further reaching, and more inexpensive than ever before,” he added.
The service plans to conclude FARA prototyping activities at the end of fiscal 2024, which will give the service and industry a chance to finish up technology development transferable to other programs.
While Bush would not specify exactly how much money would be available to spend on other efforts to strengthen the Army’s aerial tier, he said the Army plans to spend more on reconnaissance UAS that are more capable of surviving high-end fights, including the Future Tactical UAS and launched effects.
The Army’s inventory of small, runway independent UAS includes more than 575 Shadows and 19,000 Ravens.
The service had long planned to retire a portion of its Shadow fleet, grown during the counterinsurgency years. Raven, a small unmanned aircraft, is also an aging platform and the service considers it no longer effective in multidomain operations against near-peer adversaries.
The Army has sought to replace Shadow with a Future Tactical UAS. In 2022, after a roughly four-year competition, the Army awarded AeroVironment an $8 million contract to provide its Jump 20 system as an interim FTUAS capability for a single brigade.
To buy more, the Army held a second competition and, about a year ago, chose five companies to advance. It quickly eliminated incumbent AeroVironment. By September 2023, the Army whittled the group to just two companies — Shadow manufacturer Textron and Griffon Aerospace. Both are still building prototypes in hopes of winning an FTUAS production contract.
According to Brig. Gen. David Phillips, program executive officer for Army aviation, the Army is planning to get FTUAS prototypes into operational users’ hands by FY25.
And the Army is pushing to award a contract for a short-range launched effect in early 2025, he said. The service has plans to acquire short, medium and long-range launched effects as part of its modernization push.
The FLRAA program will continue as planned, Bush said, and the Army will work to stay on track to field the first operational unit by FY30.
With the absence of a second future vertical lift platform as part of the Army’s modernization plans, the service will commit more money to modernizing its current fleet.
The service wants a new multiyear contract to procure UH-60Ms beginning in FY26, when the current multiyear comes to an end, according to Bush.
After planning not to buy CH-47F Block II Chinooks for the active force to free up funding for FVL efforts in 2018, the Army is now reversing that decision and plans to formally enter production leading to future full-rate production, Bush said.
Meanwhile, the Army says it will curb its Victor-model Black Hawk utility helicopters, which feature digital cockpits and were intended to replace older Lima-model aircraft for the Army National Guard. Bush said the program experienced “significant cost growth.”
The Army has said it considered the V-model technology a stepping stone in its pursuit of a digital backbone for its FVL fleet, which will allow mission systems to seamlessly plug into the architecture of the aircraft.
Redstone Defense Systems won a contract in spring 2014 to take a Northrop Grumman-designed cockpit and integrate the technology into V-model prototypes. The Army then partnered with Corpus Christi Army Depot, Texas, to convert Lima-models into Victor-models at the rate of 48 aircraft per year, which some called too slow, as it would take roughly 15 years for the service to produce all 760 V-model aircraft to replace the L-models in the Guard.
Phillips said the Army has delivered 60 V-models to the Guard and plans to continue fielding through fiscal 2024. The service will provide the Guard Mike-model Black Hawks to fill out the fleet requirements instead.
The V-model experienced software reliability issues in its initial operational test and evaluation in 2019, which partly delayed the program. The program was further delayed when the Army was unable to reschedule a new operational test and receive certification to fly in national airspace during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic. The Army wrapped up its second initial operational test and evaluation of the V-model in summer 2022.
Bush said the Army still intends to buy its next-generation engine, but will delay production for an indefinite period. The effort, known as the Improved Turbine Engine Program, has already been running years behind schedule.
According to Phillips, there are six ITEP engines in tests, two with the FARA competitors and two more that will go into the first UH-60s in May for testing.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.