Tech"Search and destroy". This is how destroyer helicopters work

"Search and destroy". This is how destroyer helicopters work

RAH-66 Comanche - the precursor of the FARA program
RAH-66 Comanche - the precursor of the FARA program
Images source: © Boeing

5:22 AM EDT, October 22, 2023, updated: 4:53 AM EDT, October 23, 2023

The FARA program aims to discover the future military helicopter, intended for reconnaissance tasks, but also capable of destroying detected targets. Two designs are competing for selection - Bell 360 Invictus and Sikorsky Raider X. The winner will set the standards and development direction of this kind of weaponry for many decades.

In July 2022, the Bell corporation officially presented the prototype of the 360 Invictus helicopter. Over a year later, Sikorsky did the same by introducing the prototype of the Raider X helicopter. Both machines - although they aroused interest with their appearance and potential capabilities - were publicly shown without a key element.

It is the targeted, innovative drive, namely the T901 engine. It is set to replace the engines T700 used among others in Apache and Black Hawk helicopters and partially standardize this matter in the fleet of American combat helicopters.

In October 2023, General Electric (GE Aerospace) distributed one T901 engine to competing helicopter manufacturers.

This means that both Bell and Sikorsky can start preparations to ready their prototypes for a decisive clash: flight tests planned for 2024. What role is envisaged for the winner?

OH-58D Kiowa Warrior - the eyes and ears of the Apache

The AH-64 Apache is probably the most recognizable attack helicopter in the world. Built to stop masses of Soviet tanks in Europe, it showed its capabilities in a different part of the world, during Operation Desert Storm, destroying Saddam Hussein's tanks.

The widely recognized and well-known Apache had for a long time a considerably less impressive, but at the same time essential for effective operation, assistant. It was the small, inconspicuous OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter. Despite its small size and symbolic armament, this machine played a very important role for decades.

The OH-58D Kiowa Warrior is distinguished by a spherical observation head, located on top of the rotor. It allows for stealth reconnaissance using various screens, trees, or terrain obstacles.

OH-58D Kiowa Warrior Helicopter
OH-58D Kiowa Warrior Helicopter© Public domain | SSgt Shane A. Cuomo

OH-58D Kiowa Warrior could locate targets and designate them for artillery, precision bombs dropped from airplanes, and Apache helicopters. Without its small assistant, the powerful AH-64, despite having its own optoelectronic head mounted in the nose of the machine, was partially blind and deaf, and searching for targets on its own exposed it to enemy fire.

RAH-66 Comanche - precursor to the FARA program

The universal and promptly suited to its role OH-58D Kiowa Warrior was far from perfect, hence plans to replace it with another machine were drawn up in the 90s. The ARH-70 Arapaho and RAH-66 Comanche machines were designed with the thought of replacing the OH-58D.

Ultimately, the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters were withdrawn from service in 2017, and their role was partially and necessarily taken over by the AH-64s. These, in versions AH-64D Apache Longbow and AH-64E Guardian, are equipped with an AN/APG-78 Longbow fire control radar mounted above the rotor (not in all units).

Despite this, US still need specialized reconnaissance equipment. Lightweight, highly mobile, capable of operating not only among the city's high-rise buildings but also able to detect and - although it is not a priority role - destroy discovered targets. This lack is to be supplemented by the FARA program.

AN/APG-78 Longbow fire control radar over the Apache's rotor
AN/APG-78 Longbow fire control radar over the Apache's rotor© Northrop Grumman

Helicopters of the future

The FARA program itself is part of a larger initiative called FVL (Future Vertical Lift). Its goal is to conduct a generational replacement of the combat helicopter fleet, replacing decades-old machines like the UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, or CH-47 Chinook with more modern counterparts.

This is about not only increasing capabilities, but also about maximizing logistics simplification by standardizing parts, and also replacing many types and variants with just a few helicopter models.

Initiated in 2018, the FARA program involves the construction of a helicopter with stealth features (but without subordinating them to other machine features), with weaponry hidden in the hull compartments. It will be possible to sacrifice low detectability in favor of strike capabilities through mounting weapons on external attachments.

The futuristic machine is set to be powered by the new T901 engine, capable of speeds of at least 205 miles per hour, working in conjunction with glide bombs and cruising ammunition, and its standard armament is to be a 20-millimeter gun - model XM915 or the prototype Sky Viper.

An important feature of the new machine is supposed to be its adaptation for combat and flights in the city, among tight buildings, which is to be served by, among other things, limiting the diameter of the main rotor. The FARA program has identified two main competitors - Bell and Sikorsky corporations.

Bell 360 Invictus

The 360 Invictus helicopter, developed by Bell, has sparked interest from the very beginning with its appearance, similar to the RAH-66 Comanche.

Representatives from Bella commented on this issue and explained that the visual similarities are less a result of trying to build a helicopter with stealth features (hard to detect). It is rather a result of work on achieving the best possible maneuverability of the new design, its resistance to damage and efforts to maintain the lowest possible weight.

The Bell 360 Invictus, despite its rather futuristic shape, has a classic construction layout (called the Sikorsky layout), with a large main rotor and a smaller tail rotor.

Sikorsky Raider X

The second of the competitors, the Raider X helicopter developed by Sikorsky, has a completely different structure. The designers applied in it - similar to, for example, the Russians in the Ka-52 helicopters - two counter-rotating, coaxial main rotors.

However, the machine has one more rotor in the form of a pusher propeller located at the end of the fuselage.

Such a solution ensures the possibility of vertical take-off and high maneuverability typical of helicopters, but also allows the development of high speeds (another way to reconcile these conflicting assumptions is a variable-sweep wing system, like in the V-22 Osprey).

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