By: Jen Judson
WASHINGTON — AVX Aircraft Co. partnered with L-3 Communications Integrated Systems, Bell Helicopter, Boeing, Karem Aircraft and Lockheed Martin-owned Sikorsky have won awards to design a new Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) for the U.S. Army over the next year, the service announced April 23.
Only two teams will move forward, at the end of the design phase, to build flyable prototypes of the future helicopter in a head-to-head competition.
The Army laid out a handful of mandatory requirements that the vendors had to meet and also a list of desired requirements for initial designs, Col. Craig Alia, the Future Vertical Lift Cross Functional Team chief of staff, told a select group of reporters just ahead of the contract awards.
The service also looked at the vendors' execution plans and evaluated timing as well as funding profile requirements. “The ones that were selected were clearly meeting the mandatory requirements and were in the acceptable risk level of the execution plan and the desired requirements," Dan Bailey, who is the FARA competitive prototype program manager, added. The prototype program falls under the purview of the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation and Missile Center's Aviation Development Directorate.
AVX and L3 unveiled its design for the FARA competition at the Army Aviation Association of America's annual summit in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier this month. The design uses AVX's compound coaxial and ducted fans technology. The companies said its single-engine design meets 100 percent of the Army's mandatory requirements and 70 percent of its desired attributes.
The CEO of Textron, Bell's parent company, said during a recent earnings call, that its FARA design will be based on its 525 technology rather than its tiltrotor technology. Bell has built and flown a tiltrotor prototype — the V-280 Valor — for the Army's Future Vertical Lift program.
Karem has been working to develop technology under a small contract to help build requirements for FVL aircraft focused on a medium-lift helicopter.
Sikorsky's offering will be based off of its X2 coaxial technology seen in its S-97 Raider and the Sikorsky-Boeing developed SB-1 Defiant, which are now both flying.
“This is the culmination of years of investment in the X2 Technology Demonstrator and the S-97 RAIDER aircraft that have proven the advanced technology and shown its ability to change the future battlefield,” Tim Malia, Sikorsky's director of Future Vertical Lift Light, told Defense News in an emailed statement shortly after the announcement.
“We continue to fly the S-97 RAIDER to inform the design for FARA, which provides significant risk reduction to the program schedule and technical objectives. We are eager to continue to support the US Army, and we are excited that the Sikorsky FARA X2 will be ready for this critical mission," he said.
A total of eight teams submitted data and potential designs for FARA, but upon evaluation, three of those did not meet mandatory requirements, according to Bailey.
It is not publicly stated who the losing teams were, but MD Helicopters had previously protested the Army's decision to not enter into a first phase agreement with the company to develop a FARA prototype, arguing to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the Army “unreasonably” evaluated its proposal and failed to promote small business participation.
The GAO denied the protest earlier this month on the grounds it did not have authority to review protests of contracting mechanisms like Other Transaction Authorities (OTA) which the Army used in this case.
The awards were made two months ahead of an already ambitious schedule to get FARA prototypes flying by 2023. A production decision could happen in 2028, but the service is looking at any way possible to speed up that timeline.
The Army has to move quickly, Alia said. Echoing his boss, Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, the FVL CFT director, he said the Army is “at an inflection point. We can't afford not to modernize. We know the current fleet is fantastic, but we can't indefinitely continue to incrementally improve 1970s to 1980s technology.”
FARA is intended to fill a critical capability gap currently being filled by AH-64E Apache attack helicopters teamed with Shadow unmanned aircraft following the retirement of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters.
The service has tried and failed three times to fill the gap with an aircraft.
The Army is also planning to procure another helicopter to fill the long-range assault mission, replacing some UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in the fleet, simultaneously.
With the advent of the new Army Futures Command — that is focused on six major modernization priorities of which FVL is third — the service is moving faster on prototyping capability to ultimately procure major weapon systems at a somewhat unprecedented speed. Through the AFC and the use of contracting mechanisms like OTAs, the Army has found a way to compress parts of the acquisition process that previously took three to five years into periods of time often amounting to less than a year.
“What is exciting about the new process the Army has put in place,” Bailey said, “in basically a year's period of time, we've gone through concept, through an approved set of requirements, to developing an innovative approach to contracting, to building industry partnerships to have industry propose to us a plan and a solution.”
And the Army rigorously evaluated those FARA proposals, Bailey said, all within that year.
The teams have until January or February next year to provide design plans and an approach to executing the build of the prototypes followed by potential larger-scale manufacturing, Bailey said.
The second phase of the program will be to build prototypes, and “only two will make it into phase 2 and they all know that now,” Bailey added.
According to Rugen, when the request for proposals was released, the Army did not want to get locked into keeping inflexible requirements, but the request did state that the aircraft should have a maximum 40-foot rotor diameter.
The Army also asked for the aircraft to be able to accept some government furnished equipment including an engine, a gun and a rocket launcher, Alia said.
When it comes to some of the desirable attributes for a new aircraft, the Army is considering speed, range and payload possibilities, Alia said, but the service “wanted to encourage innovation by industry to come to us with their ideas and unique ways of meeting both mandatory and desirable characteristics and that is where we got some great feedback from industry and some innovative designs.”