News coverage of the U.S. Army’s plan to replace its Cold War helicopter fleet has recently focused on the selection of a successor to the ubiquitous Black Hawk helicopter.

Bell Textron’s proposal to develop a new generation tiltrotor similar in concept to the V-22 Osprey won the competition in December 2022.

However, the Army is pursuing a different helicopter, Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, which it considers its top aviation modernization priority.

The FARA, as it is called, would be a new reconnaissance helicopter designed to operate well ahead of other Army units in war zones, searching for enemy forces and assessing terrain from contested airspace.

These scouting missions are dangerous, as they require the aircraft to fly below the tree line or in urban canyons. But it is often the only way to observe tactical movements and topographical details that are not visible to higher-flying aircraft or reconnaissance satellites.

Depending on the circumstances, the FARA may attack targets such as enemy air defenses when it finds them or may report what it finds to other combatants, thus allowing them to focus their combat plans better.

Either way, Army leaders view low-flying reconnaissance missions as a critical capability, one they have sorely missed since the last dedicated scout helicopter, known as the Kiowa, was retired in 2017.

Apache gunships, supported by Shadow drones, have performed the reconnaissance role since the Kiowa’s retirement, but the Army wants a more permanent replacement that is faster, more agile and capable of penetrating deeper into hostile territory.

Since the FARA will likely be alone at the front of the battlespace, it has to be more versatile and survivable than what was available before.

And although the current competition, which will be decided in 2025, consists of choosing the best airframe, Army officials see the program as more than that; They see FARA as an integrated weapons system.

Future attack reconnaissance aircraft remains a US Army priority

That means investing in onboard sensors, small drones capable of extending the aircraft’s range, a new generation of air-launched munitions and, most importantly, a modular open systems architecture.

The Modular Open Systems Architecture – MOSA in engineering shorthand – brings together all onboard systems that support the mission and facilitates modifications when emerging threats require further design refinement.

Army planners want an architecture that can easily accommodate new digital innovations to improve aircraft performance without becoming overly dependent on the company that makes it.

The FARA’s most important mechanical feature will be its General Electric 901 engine, the booster that allows it to fly farther and faster than preexisting boosters.

General Electric won a separate competition to develop the engine, which was delivered to competing aircraft teams on October 20.

The two teams, one led by Bell Textron and the other by Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorsky, are currently integrating the engine into aircraft prototypes they have developed for the competition.

Army planners strongly favor prototyping to detect potential design problems early in the process. Development and testing must proceed smoothly if FARA is to begin reaching forces early in the next decade.

The winning design will include numerous features not present in current Army helicopters, such as electronic flight controls, internal ammunition transport, and various measures aimed at minimizing “signatures” (noise, heat, radar return, etc.).

Much of this information is confidential, but the goal is quite clear: build an exploration helicopter with unprecedented survivability, versatility, connectivity and sustainability. That is what the Army needs to stay ahead of the evolving threat.

Some observers have argued that in the future, the strike reconnaissance mission should be carried out by unmanned aircraft rather than manned ones. FARA meets that expectation to a certain extent by incorporating “air-launched effects” into its design, small drones with various uses.

However, it will be some time before a fully unmanned solution for exploration in hostile territory is viable. Artificial intelligence is not there yet, and the army needs a new explorer.

So the US military is moving forward with its FARA plan, convinced that it knows what warfighters will need in the 2030s and beyond. FARA is likely to remain the Army’s top aviation modernization priority for the remainder of the decade.

Loren Thompson