Why Does the U.S. Army Need Ten Years to Begin Fielding a New Recon Helicopter?
(Source: Forbes; issued Sept 19, 2018)
John Adams famously proposed a "government of laws and not of men." Sometimes it seems as though what we actually ended up getting was a government of lawyers. The simplest decisions get bogged down in process -- even when lives are on the line, even when the likely outcome of the process in question is obvious to everybody who's paying attention.

The U.S. Army's latest effort to acquire new armed recon helicopters is a case in point. The Army has been seeking a new rotorcraft that can find and attack targets in contested air space for a long, long time. So long that the last of its legacy recon helicopters was retired last year. By that time, the venerable Kiowa scout had been in service for nearly half a century.

Having canceled three previous efforts to replace Kiowa, the Army has now launched a fourth attempt. It is called the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA). Considering how much the Army and its contractors have learned from the previous attempts, this should be a snap. After all, it's just a scout helicopter. Yes, the requirements have changed over time -- for instance it needs to be able to jam enemy radar now -- but it is still basically a light, agile rotorcraft equipped with sensors and munitions for killing tactical targets.

But even implementing what the Army considers to be a fast development program, it will take ten years before the first FARA reaches the force. A request for design proposals will be issued sometime in the next few weeks, and, voila! -- ten years later soldiers finally get their new scout helicopter. Maybe. Imagine all the things that might happen between now and then to the threat environment, to the federal budget, and to the priorities of Army leaders.

So to avoid seeing a fourth attempt at buying a new armed recon aircraft flame out, the Army needs to speed things up. FARA needs to be a mature program of record before fate conspires to take away its funding. I have a couple of ideas for how that might be accomplished.

For starters, the current plan calls for selecting 4-6 companies that can develop conceptual designs for the new rotorcraft from which the Army can select the two most promising in 2020. That might make sense if America had 4-6 companies capable of sharing development costs with the Army and then engaging in serial production of the winning rotorcraft. But it doesn't. It has three. Other potential players lack the depth and resources to meet program requirements.

So rather than making selection more complicated than it needs to be, why not just offer design awards to companies that are demonstrably capable of meeting the industrial requirements set forth in the solicitation?

Here's another idea. The Army plans to conduct a competitive "flyoff" of prototypes based on the two best designs submitted, beginning in later 2022. Why is it necessary to spend years building full-up prototypes when today's computers and software enable developers to model airframe performance with exquisite fidelity? Might it not be feasible to obtain most of the information the Army wants by building scale models, or using rotorcraft already in hand to simulate operational performance?

Military reformers often advocate "fast prototyping" in developing new combat systems, but that phrase is an oxymoron: if suppliers must build full-up prototypes, it isn't going to be fast. It's going to take years. And meanwhile our soldiers risk going to war without a dedicated scout helicopter. The Army acknowledges that lack of a new armed recon aircraft is the biggest gap in its aviation capabilities, and yet the schedule for developing a replacement of Kiowa does not bespeak great urgency.

It's true that the Army has an interim solution to the armed recon mission in the form of modified Apache attack helicopters teamed with unmanned aircraft. But Apache wasn't developed for the armed recon mission, and will be needed for other things if war breaks out. Besides, it costs twice as much to operate and maintain as a Kiowa did. FARA is supposed to deliver superior performance at affordable prices.

Which is another reason why the plan for a next-gen recon aircraft needs to be accelerated. Who knows how much money will be available to the Army for sustaining its aviation fleet as budget walls close in over the next several years? Trillion-dollar deficits have a way of impinging on defense budgets.

I'm not advocating a particular solution for the mission. All of the companies that are actually capable of executing on the FARA program -- Bell/Textron, Boeing, Lockheed/Sikorsky -- contribute to my think tank. What I am proposing, though, is that the Army compress its development schedule for a new armed recon rotorcraft so that our soldiers begin to be better equipped against the likes of Russia and China somewhere around 2025, rather than after 2030.

A whole lot can happen in ten years. We don't need another Army development program to be overtaken by events.

-ends-







prev next

Official reports See all