The U.S. Army has tapped helicopter-makers Sikorsky and Bell each to build prototype scout ‘copters for a competitive fly-off.

The Army plans to pick one of the so-called “Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft” designs finally to replace the OH-58D scouts that the service prematurely retired in 2017.

The fly-off is scheduled to begin in 2023, signalling the Army’s third attempt in 30 years to develop a new aerial scout. The Army wants the first unit to be combat-ready with the new rotorcraft in 2028.

The FARA scouts could free up hundreds of Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters that the Army has pressed into the scout role despite the Apache being too big, slow and heavy for the role.

Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider design boasts twin, counter-rotating main rotors. Bell’s Model 360 Invictus is a more conventional design, albeit with sharp angles that could point to some degree of radar stealth.

In advancing Bell and Sikorsky, the Army eliminated three other companies from the competition. AVX, Bell, Boeing, Karem and Sikosrky in 2019 each snagged a development contract for the FARA program.

To adequately replace both the OH-58D and the AH-64, the new copter will need to carry sophisticated sensors and a heavy load of long-range weapons. It will need to be able to fly for hours at a time at speeds fast enough to evade enemy defenses, all in hot-and-high conditions that can sap a rotorcraft’s lifting power.

It also will need to be tough, reliable and affordable.

Texas-based AVX offered a version of its Joint Multi-Role helicopter, a stubby rotorcraft with ducted fans in place of the tail boom. “The AVX design offers the capabilities the Army wants for the future fleet of utility and attack aircraft at a very attractive price,” AVX stated.

“The AVX JMR aircraft has entry doors on both sides of the fuselage as well as a large rear ramp for easy cargo handling. Additionally, it has retractable landing gear and the attack variant … carries all armaments stored inside until needed which provides a ‘clean’ aerodynamic design.”

Chicago-based Boeing was cagey. “The company declines to reveal details of its proposal, citing competitive considerations,” Flight Global reported. “It manufactures the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and AH-6 Little Bird light gunship – two helicopters that could be partially, if not entirely, replaced by FARA.”

Karem in California likewise volunteered few details. “The design firm has put forward a series of tiltrotor concepts of different sizes for the Future Vertical Lift program,” according to Flight Global. FARA falls under the wider FVL effort.

By contrast, Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary in Connecticut, loudly extolled the virtues of its high-tech Raider, a speedy “pusher” helicopter with a backward-facing tail rotor and counter-rotating main rotors that the company lumps together under its so-called “X2” technology.

“The Sikorsky S-97 Raider flight test program is exceeding expectations, demonstrating Raider’s revolutionary speed, maneuverability and agility,” Tim Malia, a Sikorsky director, stated in late 2018. “X2 Technology represents a suite of technologies needed for the future fight, enabling the warfighter to engage in high-intensity conflict anytime, anywhere as a member of a complex, multi-domain team.”

Texas-based Bell’s case? “They say they can meet the … 235 miles-per-hour speed requirement for the scout without resorting to more complex technologies that cost more to build and maintain,” Breaking Defense explained. “That’s potentially very appealing to the Army, which has included maximum costs for initial purchase — no more than $30 million per aircraft — and per flying hour as requirements alongside aerodynamic performance.”

Whichever company the Army taps to build potentially hundreds of scout helicopters must contend with a demoralizing legacy.

For more than 20 years the service tried and failed to replace the OH-58, which first flew in its austere OH-58A version in 1966. The D-model Kiowa Warrior in the late 1980s added new sensors and weapons to the basic OH-58 airframe.

In its first attempt to replace the OH-58D, the Army in the 1990s paid Boeing and Sikorsky to develop the RAH-66 Comanche, a very expensive “stealth” helicopter that, in reality, probably wouldn’t have been very stealthy. The Army in 2004 finally canceled the Comanche.

Next, the service commissioned Bell to develop the ARH-70, a non-stealthy scout that was similar in design to the OH-58D but bigger and more sophisticated than the older copter was. Bell and Boeing squabbled over the program’s delays and rising costs. The Army in 2008 canceled the ARH-70, too.

Having failed twice to replace the OH-58D, the Army instead spent millions of dollars upgrading the old Kiowa Warriors before finally disposing of them without a direct substitute.

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad.

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