WASHINGTON — After dropping a brief teaser trailer several weeks ago on social media with split-second glimpses of shadowy outlines of its offering to the U.S. Army’ Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft competition, Boeing prompted plenty of speculation on its design.
The company has kept its FARA design close to its vest since receiving a small design contract from the Army. The company even held a 30-minute press briefing at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in October 2019 where it told reporters they wouldn’t be unveiling anything just yet.
Boeing finally went public on March 3 just ahead of the Army choosing two competitors from a pool of five to move forward to build a flying prototype with the intent of picking a winner at the end. The service is expected to make its selection some time this month.
Boeing is the last of those competitors to reveal its hand.
That helicopter is simply being called “Boeing FARA,” and its clean-sheet design features a hingeless, six-bladed, high-solidity main rotor; a four-bladed conventional tail rotor; and a propeller on the back, Shane Openshaw, Boeing’s FARA program manager, told a small group of reporters ahead of the company’s March 3 unveiling.
“That main rotor is purpose-built for this particular aircraft,” Openshaw said. “Think of it as the means to provide the agility and maneuverability that this aircraft requires.”
The tail rotor will give the aircraft the maneuverability characteristics at lower speeds of a more typical helicopter, Openshaw said, and the propeller “will give it the the speed and maneuverability that is needed to support the FARA requirements.”
Some of the “nuances that occur with an articulated rotor system” will not be experienced with the Boeing FARA design, he added. For instance, the design eliminates high rotor blade flapping.
The Army is requiring that FARA reach a cruise speed of at least 180 knots at 4,000 feet in 95 degree temperatures.
Openshaw added that the helicopter also features a Modular Open Systems Architecture, or MOSA, required for the FARA program and takes sustainment into account through a maintenance-friendly design using common Army equipment and components.
The Army wants all designs to be able to accept its Improved Turbine Engine Program’s engine, which is currently under development and built by General Electric. The service also wants to incorporate an integrated munitions launcher it has internally developed.
Every design must incorporate the Army’s MOSA backbone to be able to upgrade the aircraft into the future, which means the aircraft has to be able to accept capabilities with very little tweaking in order to combat threats not yet on the horizon.
The Boeing FARA design also features a single-engine aircraft with tandem cockpit seating.
“We did not go into this effort with our mind made up on what our approach was going to be,” Openshaw said. “We went through an array of trades and prioritization efforts to define our solution, and it is purpose-built for the Army. It will have the right kind of capabilities to make it a key element of their vision of the ecosystem, and it will be capable, simple and effective.”
Boeing is using its experience in model-based systems engineering, specifically what was used for its winning advanced trainer jet design for the Air Force — the T-7 Red Hawk — and also the MQ-25 Stingray aerial-refueling unmanned aircraft system for the Navy, according to Mark Cherry, general manager and vice president of Boeing Phantom Works.
FARA was specifically designed in the Phantom Works division of the company.
“It’s a legacy that gives us an assurance that we’re going to be able to meet prototyping requirements at the schedule that the Army is looking for,” Cherry said. Along with that, he noted, Boeing is paying close attention to life cycle costs and is using its “extensive background in design testing to ensure that we have the data that supports our analysis to ensure that the Army understands what we’re providing, and more importantly, all of the parameters, so they can make their evaluations on the right capability for their needs.”
FARA is intended to fill a critical capability gap currently filled by AH-64E Apache attack helicopters teamed with Shadow unmanned aircraft following the retirement of the Bell-manufactured OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters.
Boeing is competing with AVX Aircraft Co. partnered with AVX Aircraft partnered with L3 Technologies; Bell Helicopter; a Karem Aircraft, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon team; and Lockheed Martin-owned Sikorsky. The Army awarded each a design contract in April 2019.
The AVX and L3 team unveiled its design for FARA at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual summit in Nashville, Tennessee, in April 2019. The single-engine design uses AVX’s compound coaxial and ducted fans technology.
Bell revealed its design — the Bell 360 Invictus — based off its 525 technology shortly before the AUSA annual conference last year. It features a single main rotor in a four-blade configuration and a low-drag tandem cockpit fuselage.
Karem announced it would team with Northrop and Raytheon and came out with its design at AUSA — its AR-40 — with a single main rotor, tilting compound wings and a rotating tail rotor.
Sikorsky’s offering — Raider X — is based on both its X2 coaxial technology seen in its S-97 Raider and the Sikorsky-Boeing-developed SB-1 Defiant, which are now both flying. Raider X is already under construction.
The Army continues to look for ways to accelerate FARA fielding and is on an ambitious schedule to get prototypes flying by 2023. A production decision could happen in 2028.
Much is riding on the competition. The service has tried and failed three times to fill the armed reconnaissance gap with an aircraft.
The Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche program was one of those attempts. The program was canceled in 2004 after the Army had already spent roughly $7 billion when the aircraft became unaffordable.
Boeing had offered a version of its AH-6 Little Bird for the most recent Armed Scout Helicopter competition attempted in 2012. This time the Army didn’t want to get locked into keeping inflexible requirements, but did request that aircraft have a maximum 40-foot-rotor diameter.
The Army will consider speed, range and payload possibilities, but wants to encourage innovation by industry for designs that push the envelope and make FARA a true next-generation aircraft that can contribute to the fleet for the good part of a century.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.