WASHINGTON — Army leaders in charge of aviation modernization say they have carved out a realistic, but ambitious schedule to move through a competitive development effort and field a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft by 2030.
The service has struggled to procure new helicopters for several decades, failing three times to replace its armed reconnaissance helicopter — the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior — with something more capable.
Yet, it is speeding down a path to build and fly two competitive prototypes — from Textron’s Bell and Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky — as it shapes final requirements for the future aircraft ahead of a program of record.
FARA is intended to finally fill the gap left open when the service decided to retire the Kiowa in 2013. The Army has used the AH-64E Apache attack helicopter teamed with unmanned aircraft to meet that mission, but procuring an attack reconnaissance aircraft is the Army’s No. 1 priority in vertical lift modernization.
The service has spent roughly a decade developing another aircraft expected to come online around the same time as FARA — the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft, or FLRAA — and has spent years flying technology demonstrators to reduce risk on the program.
The FARA program won’t have the same experience.
But the companies competing in the FLRAA program are familiar to the Army’s future vertical lift endeavors — a Bell team pitted against a Sikorsky-Boeing team — and are bringing that experience to the FARA effort.
Brig. Gen. Rob Barrie, the program executive officer for Army aviation, told Defense News both competitors for FARA are “satisfactorily advancing their designs on pace with overall program expectations, goals and milestones,” and are roughly 50 percent complete with air vehicle prototype production.
In the coming months, the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) — the engine that will power FARA — will go through its first test and “will add clarity as we charge into [fiscal] 22,” Barrie said.
Defense News posed questions to Col. Greg Fortier, the Army’s FARA program manager, and Col. Matt Isaacson, the service’s FVL chief of operations, on how the Army will sort out its requirements and schedule as it moves forward.
Let’s talk about the specifications refinement process. There’s been confusion about what are hard requirements, where the Army will not bend and where there is wiggle room. How does the Army look at some of the specifications that have been laid out from weight, speed, payloads and weapon systems, etc.?
Isaacson: The FARA competitive prototype effort began with a list of desired attributes, outlined in the Initial Capabilities Requirement Document (ICRD). The seven “desired” attributes focus on agility, speed, rotor diameter, power plant design, weapons system, weapons launcher and modular open systems approach. Ultimately, the innovative approach of rapid prototype design and development, coupled with early weapon system trades analysis, ensures achievable capabilities are developed as efficiently as possible.
What was specifically codified in the Abbreviated Capabilities Development Document and what still has room to change?
Isaacson: The recently approved [A-CDD] provides updates to the attributes originally outlined in the [ICRD], based on facts derived from the Final Design Risk Reduction that culminated in December 2020. We expect continued iteration on this document through FY22 before receiving the final requirement in FY23 in the form of a Capabilities Development Document.
Why the 40-foot blade requirement, and is that something the Army is considering changing?
Isaacson: Rotor diameter desired attributes were derived from a series of urban studies conducted prior to writing the [ICRD]. Our final requirements will be informed based on data received during the Final Design and Risk Reduction as well as the final prototype builds that are ongoing.
When are the final set of requirements due out for FARA?
Isaacson: The final set of requirements — the Capabilities Development Document — is scheduled to be presented to the Army Requirements Oversight Council in FY23.
How have you seen industry iterate on their designs as they begin building? For example, Bell has decided to redesign its tail rotor.
Fortier: The hallmark of any new-start aviation program is a willingness to spend a great deal of time in the design phase. Industry has done an excellent job iterating on their initial designs and [has] clearly incorporated the requisite technical rigor and innovation necessary to align with attributes described in our recently released draft system performance specification [in] May 2021. Over the next few years, we expect additional design refinements as industry incorporates learning from prototype development and testing. While the designs may be adjusted after the prototypes are built, the ability to “fly before we buy” validates engineering models and ultimately saves time in the [engineering and manufacturing development, or EMD] process.
Do you anticipate possibly making major changes to the design or to components during EMD that would add risk to the program? I know that some have expressed concern with this possibility.
Fortier: The construct of the program, namely the development and test flight of prototypes before milestone B, reduces risk to EMD. The ability to mature weapons system design and clearly articulate the trade space before the EMD program begins reduces schedule and technical risk while optimizing performance. While physics and flight test always yield challenges that require adjustments to design and or components, we have an unparalleled three-year opportunity before us to obtain a clear and informed view of the weapon system, well before it becomes a program of record. This significantly reduces the often-late discovery of requirements misalignment and allows for cost-effective implementation of adjustments that are well within schedule constraints.
In terms of schedule, there are concerns this is too ambitious. FLRAA had 10 years to learn, and FARA hasn’t had that. How can FARA go faster? How confident are you in the schedule and is it possible and reasonable to think the schedule could or should slip by a few years?
Fortier: I appreciate the concern about the ambitious schedule, but [Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration] to FLRAA and FARA [competitive prototyping] to FARA are not synonymous because most of the FARA activities are being executed in parallel. In just over two years, the FARA CP/FARA program has achieved eight program milestones either early or on time.
Just eight months ago, we were challenged to demonstrate the firing of Air Launched Effects from a launcher that did not yet exist as well as fire the XM915 20mm gun from a surrogate UH-60 at Project Convergence in October 2021. I am happy to report that we are also on track to execute these next two milestones on schedule. This could only be accomplished through the exceptional teamwork between PEO Aviation, FVL Cross Functional Team, Army Contracting Command, the Combat Capabilities Development Center at Redstone Arsenal, [Alabama] and Fort Eustis, [Virginia]. FY22 and FY23 represent critical years for this program as we obtain analysis of alternatives sufficiency, release an EMD request for proposal, complete the initial weapons system preliminary design review and proceed to prototype flight.
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.