Defence Helicopter

US Army savours FARA respite but hurts from COVID-19 budget shortfall

27th March 2020 - 12:30 GMT | by Tim Martin in London

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Following the on-schedule downselect of Bell and Sikorsky to compete for the Future Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) prototype design and test phase, the US Army has confirmed it sees no reason why COVID-19 complications should upset planned programme targets.

The army has received no reports from large manufacturers to suggest operational or production issues are afoot because of the spread of the virus, according to Joseph Giunta, senior contracting official at the US Army Contracting Command.

Despite that assessment, a shortfall of $891.5 million to prevent and mitigate the disease has been identified through an unclassified report belonging to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Financial Management and Comptroller (ASA (FM&C)) and as first reported by the military news outlet Task and Purpose.

Figures from the report show that a series of line items, amounting to an overall cost of $992 million, make up the investment required to comprehensively deal with COVID-19, including funding for vaccinations and personal protection equipment.

At the time of publication, the ASA (FM&C) had not responded to a request for further information.

A new light scout helicopter has been considered a high priority for the army since the retirement of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, which on current projections will be replaced by either Bell’s 360 Invictus or Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider X in 2030, with the eventual winner of the FARA competition also being contracted to replace half of the service’s current AH-64 Apache attack helicopter fleet. 

The Bell 360 Invictus uses technology from the company's 525 Relentless super-medium commercial helicopter and features a wing for increased lift. (Photo: Bell)

‘I have not had specific contact about production ramp-ups inside of the two [FARA] primes picked for the downselect, but I would assume they were doing as they normally do with production planning, based on the assumption that they would be provided with a continuation [of work] as a result of their initial designs,’ Giunta explained.

At a wider army aviation level, a number of smaller suppliers have been forced to close down owing to coronavirus and ‘lower utilisation rates’ are becoming more apparent because of industry personnel absences, according to Pat Mason, US Army programme executive officer, aviation.

As of 26 March, there were 288 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among army personnel, dependents and associated contractors, including as many as 100 soldiers, according to figures released by the US DoD.

‘I’m concerned especially about sub-tier companies that have a large amount of commercial business that goes along with their defence business… as they are facing significant financial headwinds right now and so we want to make sure we don’t have any at risk,’ Mason said. ‘By staying well informed, we want to do what’s necessary to ensure the continued operation of our defence industrial base.’

Standing in favour of the defence industry maintaining programme plans is the fact that it has been deemed a critical infrastructure sector by the US Department of Homeland Security, affording it capacity to work under set guidance laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect workers from the pandemic. 

‘If your contract or subcontract supports the development, production, testing, fielding, or sustainment of our weapons systems/software systems or the infrastructure to support those activities, [they] are considered Essential Critical Infrastructure,’ Ellen Lord, US undersecretary of defence for acquisition and sustainment wrote in a Defence Industrial Base memo on 20 March, adding that companies supporting areas like military training and deployments are also covered under the critical infrastructure umbrella. 

Sikorsky's Raider X is a scaled-up version of the experimental S-97 Raider featuring X2 technology. (Photo: author)

Looking more specifically at FARA developments, a Bell spokesperson confirmed to Shephard that the company has already started production on the 360 Invictus helicopter, which features a lift-sharing, fixed-wing, tandem cockpit, single engine and technology from its commercially designed 525 super-medium aircraft.

Bell was originally awarded $790 million by the US Army in April 2019 under an Other Transaction Authority agreement to enter the previous initial design review phase, mainly based on meeting key requirements of proposing an aircraft design that is capable of flying at a minimum cruise airspeed of 180kt, maximum 12m (40ft) rotor disc criteria and a maximum gross weight of 6,350kg (14,000lb).

Funding received goes towards the latest build and test phase and carries on for the entire programme ‘period of performance', the Bell spokesperson confirmed.

By contrast, initial design and review competitors who have now been cut from FARA – Karem, Boeing and a JV between AVX and L3Harris Technologies – receive no more funding.

‘We were excited and privileged to participate in the FARA Phase 1 programme and were enthusiastic about building and demonstrating a prototype of our game-changing aircraft for the Army in Phase 2,’ a Karem spokesperson said in a statement. ‘We wish the Army well as they pursue the rest of the programme and will look for opportunities to contribute to its eventual success.’

Boeing expressed ‘disappointment’ at not being selected and is ‘seeking further information’ from the army to better understand the downselect decision.

‘We believe the AVX CCH [Compound Coaxial Helicopter] design offers the best performance at the best price point of all competitors,’ a spokesperson for the JV said. ‘We will continue further maturation of our design as an offering for the Army’s FLRAA [Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft] programme.’ 

Boeing's FARA proposal based on a six-bladed rotor system and single-engine design failed to reach the new design and test phase. (Photo: Boeing)

Having flown the S-97 Raider – the baseline design for Sikorsky’s Raider X – for more than four years, Sikorsky had been widely tipped as a firm favourite to advance to the design and test phase, with the US Army having already witnessed flight test activities at the company’s Florida facility.

'We have migrated to a fully model-based digital environment in advance of this program to reduce development, acquisition and sustainment costs and enabling more rapid deployment of future capability enhancements,' Tim Malia, director, Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft at Sikorsky said in a statement.

Sikorsky’s X2 technology forms the backbone of the Raider X design, mainly consisting of counter-rotating blades, fly-by-wire flight controls and an advanced propulsion system.

Once fully developed, the prototype will be scaled up to weigh 2,000lb (907kg) more than the S-97 Raider, which has previously recorded speeds of above 200kt in level flight.

Based on US Army milestones, both Sikorsky and Bell will compete under the design and test phase until its conclusion culminates in a DoD flight test evaluation planned for Q3-Q4 2023, at the latest.

An engineering, manufacturing and development phase with one contractor will then begin in FY2024, alongside additional flight testing and weapons systems capability verification. 

This premium content is brought to you by our sponsor Honeywell. A big thanks for their support, which means our coverage on the impact of COVID-19 on the defence sector is free-to-view until 22 June.

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