In addition, the Army plans to end production of the UH-60 V Black Hawk in fiscal year 2025 due to “significant increases in costs,” maintain General Electric’s Turbine Engine Improvement Program (ITEP) in the development phase instead of moving it into production, and gradually phase out the Shadow and Raven unmanned aerial systems from the fleet, the Army added.
In short, this is a radical change in the Army’s aeronautical strategy that turns years of planning upside down. There’s also an ironic sense of history repeating itself: The decision to end FARA comes two decades after the Army ended its plans to acquire the RAH-66 Comanche and nearly 16 years after work ended. on the ARH-70A Arapaho, both aircraft designed to replace the Kiowa, the same helicopter that FARA was ultimately supposed to replace.
The reason for ending FARA, Army leaders told a small group of reporters before the announcement, is a reflection of what war is like in the modern era.
“We are absolutely watching [world events] and adapting because we could go to war tonight, this weekend,” Gen. James Rainey, head of the Army Futures Command, told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
“We are learning from the battlefield – especially in Ukraine – that aerial reconnaissance has fundamentally changed,” Army Chief Gen. Randy George said in a news release. “Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space are more ubiquitous, longer-range and cheaper than ever.”
Although the industry had been planning a replacement for the Kiowa for years, the program officially kicked off in 2018 with five competitors, which were reduced to two in 2020: Bell-Textron with the 360 Invictus and Sikorsky with its Raider X.
While observations from places like Ukraine and Gaza are part of the push for FARA’s cancellation, the need to free up billions of dollars to invest in unmanned systems was also a primary factor, Rainey and other aviation industry leaders explained.
So the tentative plan, if Congress passes a fiscal 2024 spending bill that includes FARA program funding, the tentative plan is to maintain FARA development this year, partly to protect the industrial base and continue testing—said Army Acquisition Chief Doug Bush. However, on October 1, when FY25 begins, FARA development will end if the service has its way, as Congress will also have to intervene.
Although the Army still needs a capability similar to the FARA, Rainey said the service does not plan to launch another manned Kiowa replacement initiative, as it has done in the past. Instead, it will invest in other areas, especially unmanned ones, to fulfill the Kiowa’s role as an armed scout operating ahead of other units in war zones.
What those final investments will look like will have to wait a while, but Bush said the service plans to use a portion of the billions of dollars freed up to invest in four spots within the aviation portfolio.
- Sign a new multi-year procurement agreement with Lockheed-Sikorsky for the UH-60M Blackhawk line.
- Give Boeing the green light to begin CH-47F Block II Chinook production formally.
- Continue developing the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) as planned.
- Additional investments to develop and purchase unmanned aerial reconnaissance systems include future tactical unmanned and launched effects systems.
“The Army is deeply committed to our aviation portfolio and our aviation industrial base partners,” Service Secretary Christine Wormuth wrote in a news release. “These steps allow us to work with industry to deliver critical capabilities as part of the joint force, place the Army on a sustainable strategic trajectory, and continue the Army’s broader modernization plan, which is the service’s most significant modernization effort. In more than four decades.”
The repercussions of the Army’s new plan will not be long in coming, both from Capitol Hill, from industry and analysts, all stakeholders the Army needs to win over to keep its FY24 request intact and change course in the 25th.
“We hope to be able to keep all [FY24] funding where it is to allow us to make these transitions from current efforts to new ones in an orderly manner,” Bush said. “That also helps protect the workforce.”
On the industry side, Bell and Sikorsky have spent years and a lot of their own dollars working on prototypes, while General Electric has worked on the long-delayed ITEP. The two helicopter prototypes were scheduled to make their first flight this year, but it is now unclear if or when they will do so.
From Sikorsky’s point of view, the company has said it remains committed to its prototype, the X2, “disappointed” with the Army’s decision and waiting for a report to understand that choice better. In an emailed statement, a Bell spokesperson said that while the company is also “disappointed,” it “will apply the insights and demonstrated successes from our FARA development efforts in future aircraft.”
Although Army leaders did not provide reporters with detailed information about the decision-making process that shaped the new plan, Bush did not blame FARA’s cancellation on exorbitant costs or a technological challenge. Instead, he emphasized that the decision comes after the completion of an analysis of alternatives (AOA), a review that some congressmen, including Wittman, said should have been done sooner.
Although Bell and Sikorsy cannot secure a FARA production agreement now, the Army provided industrial support to both companies in the revised plan.
For example, the plan to end the UH-60V Black Hawk upgrade program (which includes the installation of a new digital cockpit) in FY25 would seem like a blow to Sikorsky. However, according to Bush, funds freed up from the larger aviation decision can now be used to sign a new multi-year UH-60M procurement agreement that would take production beyond FY26. (So far, the National Guard has received 60 of those helicopters, with more coming this year, but going forward, that component will receive UH-60M Black Hawks instead.)
Questions about the fate of the UH-60 line arose last year when the service chose Bell’s V-280 Valor for its multibillion-dollar Future Long Range Assault Aircraft program. Although Bell will now lose his chance to win FARA, Bush’s statement that some of the freed-up money will go to FLARA should ease concerns.
A third industrial player, Boeing, is also poised for a much-needed victory with Bush’s announcement that the Army plans to formally begin production of the CH-47F Block II Chinook, a move that comes roughly five years after the Service would put a stop to the purchase of that configuration. In the intervening years, lawmakers have repeatedly added unrequested funds to the budget for the service to purchase those helicopters.