WASHINGTON — Despite a delay in new engine technology, the U.S. Army is continuing to develop systems for its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft that go beyond the airframe, according to the two-star general in charge of the service’s vertical lift modernization.
As part of the Improved Turbine Engine Program, a General Electric Aerospace-developed engine will replace those in the UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache helicopters, and power the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft. But the FARA effort is delayed since prototype flights reliant on the new engine won’t take place until the fourth quarter of fiscal 2024, according to the latest Army budget documents.
The plan was to execute a first flight for each aircraft in late 2023. That flight schedule had already been postponed by roughly a year, according to a comparison of FY22 and FY23 budget documents.
Both competitors — Textron’s Bell and Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky — have said their FARA prototypes are built and just awaiting the new engine.
The Army has collected “a ton of data” within the FARA program already, Maj. Gen. Wally Rugen, the service’s Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team director, told Defense News in an interview.
“I know everyone’s wanted to fire off the engines and fly, and I do too,” he said ahead of the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference, taking place April 26-28 in Nashville, Tennessee. “But [the Army] is tying a developmental engine to a developmental aircraft. We didn’t do that with [the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft].”
The Army selected Bell to build FLRAA in December after building competitive technology demonstrators and flying them for several years. A Sikorsky and Boeing team lost that competition.
FARA is a “much higher bar,” Rugen said. “I would argue that a scout aircraft is probably technically a bit more advanced than maybe an assault aircraft.”
“So the engine is slowing us down,” he added, “but we’re willing to take that to get the transformational capabilities that ITEP is going to bring, which is the specific fuel consumption and higher shaft horsepower.”
Rugen said an engine was in the test cell two weeks ago, demonstrating 3,100 shaft horsepower.
General Electric’s problems with the ITEP engine began as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We got our butt kicked in COVID,” Rugen said. GE not only ran into problems with sub-suppliers, but also “had a brain drain” with the exit of experienced quality-control managers, engineers and other technical employees during that time, he added.
“That’s a double whammy of a talent deficit and a supply chain problem,” Rugen explained. “I think they’re done with any excuses on that and they’re moving out. Am I thrilled? No. But it just becomes triage and a very clinical process of how do we keep our momentum … and we’re committed to it.”
During a hearing last week before the House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, Army acquisition chief Doug Bush said recent ITEP delays are specifically related to quality control of subtier vendors.
GE “had trouble making some new components including some new methods like 3D printing to the level of quality required for engines that we can actually put in test aircraft,” he said.
The company, he added, believes the program is “under control. My team of experts believes their current estimates are reasonable, but it is a delay.”
The Army has also begun an analysis of alternatives for the FARA program, which is also slowing down the effort, Bush said, adding that the Army won’t reach the technology maturation phase of the program until the first quarter of FY26.
The Army plans to complete engineering and manufacturing development for ITEP in the third quarter of FY26, according to FY24 budget documents, and won’t reach initial operational capability until the third quarter of FY29, an almost two-year delay from the timeline based on FY23 budget documents.
In the meantime
While the Army waits for the engine, it is developing the weapons systems and a critical modular open-system architecture for the aircraft, Rugen said. “This is our effort to claw back schedule and claw back scope.”
The Army continues to release draft design requirements to industry for the FARA weapon system, and the service continues to take steps to mitigate risk to the development effort, he added.
The eventual modular open-system architecture is meant to host mission systems such as survivability equipment and the Army’s internally developed Modular Effects Launcher. The open system allows the Army to bring in new technology when it is ready and relevant, Rugen said.
The Modular Effects Launcher is already gaining traction with other services; in particular U.S. Special Operations Command and the Marine Corps are adopting the technology, Rugen noted.
Building the weapons systems architecture includes efforts to focus on FARA as a “deep sensing” capability, something that can see farther and use missiles, rockets or nonlethal effects like electronic warfare to attack threats at greater distances.
And the mission systems architecture is meant to connect soldiers and sensors on the battlefield through a robust aerial tier network. The Army Requirements Oversight Council will decide whether to continue to advance the aerial tier network before the end of this calendar year, Rugen said.
The service previously evaluated technologies within the architecture through experimentation exercises like Project Convergence and the aerial tier-focused event Edge, heading into its third year in May, Rugen noted.
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.