MIGHTY TACTICAL

The awesome things the Army wants its next recon helicopter to do

The Army wants a reconnaissance helicopter that can fly ridiculously fast, hide in urban canyons and tight terrain, and coordinate the actions of drones, artillery, and other aircraft while breaching enemy defenses.

One of the Army's biggest modernization programs is the development of the "future armed reconnaissance aircraft," a new recon aircraft that would take, roughly, the place of the retired OH-58 Kiowa, but would actually be much more capable than anything the Army has fielded before.


An S-97 Raider, a small and fast compound helicopter, flies in this promotional image from Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky.

(Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky)

First, the service isn't necessarily looking for a new helicopter, and it's not even necessarily looking to directly replace the Kiowa. That's because the Army's doctrine has significantly changed since it last shopped for a reconnaissance aircraft. Instead, the Army wants something that can support operations across the land, air, and sea. If the best option is a helicopter, great, but tilt-rotors are definitely in the mix.

Maybe most importantly, it needs to be able to operate in cities, hiding in "urban canyons," the gaps between buildings. Enemy radar would find it hard to detect and attack aircraft in these canyons, allowing aircraft that can navigate them to move through contested territory with less risk. As part of this requirement, the aircraft needs to have a maximum 40-foot rotor diameter and fuselage width.

Anything over that would put crews at enormous risk when attempting to navigate tight skylines.

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And the Army wants it to be fast, reaching speeds somewhere between 180 and 205 knots, far faster than the 130 knots the Kiowa could fly.

But the speed and maneuverability has a real purpose: Getting the bird quickly into position to find enemy forces and help coordinate actions against them. To that end, the final design is expected to be able to network with the rest of the force and feed targeting and sensor data to battlefield commanders, especially artillery.

While there's no stated requirement for the next scout to have stealth capabilities, scouts always want to stay sneaky and getting howitzers and rockets on the ground to take out your targets is much more stealthy than firing your own weapons. But another great option is having another, unmanned aircraft take the shot or laze the target, that's why the final aircraft is expected to work well with drones.

A soldier launches a Puma drone during an exercise. The future FARA aircraft will be able to coordinate the actions of drones if the Army gets its​

(U.S. Army Spc. Dustin D. Biven)

The pilots could conduct the actions of unmanned aerial vehicles that would also need to be able to operate without runways and in tight spaces. This would increase the area that a single helicopter pilot or crew can search, stalk, and attack. With the drones, helicopter, and artillery all working together, they should be able to breach enemy air defenses and open a lane for follow-on attackers.

That network architecture shouldn't be too challenging since Apache pilots are already linked to drones from the cockpit. Another trait the Army wants to carry over from current programs is the upcoming powerplant from the Improved Turbine Engine Program, an effort to create a new engine for the Black Hawks and Apaches. If the new aircraft has the same engine, it would drastically simplify the logistics chain for maintenance units on the front lines.

The Bell V-280 Valor is a strong contender to be the Army's next medium-lift aircraft, but is much too large for the FARA competition.

(Bell Flight)

There are few aircraft currently in the hopper that could fulfill the Army's vision. That's why the Army is looking to accept design proposals and then go into a competitive process. The first prototypes would start flying in the 2020s.

But there are currently flying aircraft that could become competitive with just a little re-working. The Sikorsky SB-1 Defiant is a prototype competing in the Army's future vertical lift fly off. It's little sister is the S-97 Raider, a seemingly good option for FARA right out of the box.

Its 34-foot wingspan could be increased and still easily fit within the Army's 40-foot max rotor diameter. It has flown 202 knots in a speed test, reaching deep into the Army's projected speed range of 180-205 knots. Currently, it's configured to compete against the V-280 with room for troops to ride, but that space could easily be changed over to additional weapon, fuel, and computer space. The S-97 has even already been modified to accept the ITEP engine.

An S-97 Raider, widely seen as an obvious contender for the future armed reconnaissance attack program, flies through a narrow canyon in a promotional graphic.

(Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky)

But other manufacturers will certainly throw their hats in the ring, and Bell could advance a new design for the requirement.

The Army is keen to make sure the aircraft is built on proven technologies, though. It has failed to get a final product out of its last three attempts to buy a reconnaissance helicopter. With the Kiowas already retired and expensive Apaches filling the role, Apaches that will have lots of other jobs in a full war, there's real pressure to make sure this program doesn't fail and is done quickly.

Ultimately, though, it's not up to just the Army. While the Army is expected to be the largest purchaser of helicopters in the coming years, replacing a massive fleet of aircraft, the overall future of vertical lift program is at the Department of Defense-level. The Army will have a lot of say, but not necessarily the final decision. That means the Secretary of Defense can re-stack the Army's priorities to purchase medium-lift before recon, but that seems unlikely given the complete absence of a proper vertical lift reconnaissance aircraft in the military.