Thursday, March 21, 2024

An interesting analysis of the US Army's helicopter plans


Many people were surprised when the US Army cancelled its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program last month.  However, those who'd been following the battlefield performance of helicopters in the Russia-Ukraine conflict were less so.  Following the decision, there's been a lot of speculation about the way ahead for the US Army, and for other nations.  Flight Global observes:

“We are learning from the battlefield – especially in Ukraine,” army chief of staff General Randy George said as the FARA requirement was cancelled on 8 February. “Aerial reconnaissance has fundamentally changed. Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space are more ubiquitous, further reaching, and more inexpensive than ever before.”

Rather than continue to plough billions of dollars into the FARA project, the service instead has opted to “rebalance its aviation modernisation investments across new and enduring platforms”.

. . .

For FARA especially, the army envisioned a platform that would capable of operating low and fast. Such traits would enable the service to keep its aircraft and personnel out of harm’s when facing advanced ground-based air-defence systems and man-portable weapons.

Yet to be flown, the FARA candidates – Bell’s 360 Invictus and Sikorsky’s Raider X – were designed to meet a performance requirement of at least 180kt (333km/h) ... Instead, the service will continue to employ the Apache for such tasks, in concert with assets including a future tactical uncrewed aircraft system (FTUAS) and so-called air-launched effects (ALEs) ... The service has already performed trials involving the Black Hawk deploying Anduril Industries’ Altius-600 UAS. Such a system could be employed as an ALE, extending platform reach by providing surveillance, electronic warfare capability or kinetic effect.

The army will later this year also begin fielding Rafael’s Spike NLOS long-range air-to-surface missile with its V6-standard AH-64Es. The weapon has a precision strike capability against fixed and moving targets from a maximum range of 27nm (50km).

“There are a lot of countries interested in the integration of Spike NLOS for Apache ‘Echo’,” Rafael says, pointing to lessons learned from the war in Ukraine. “Everybody is looking for stand-off [range], since the threat is much greater than it used to be.”

Questions remain around the complex task of managing airspace congestion and deconflicting assets in an era where manned rotorcraft will operate in the same battlespace – and in many cases at the same altitude – as multiple UAS and ALEs.

There's more at the link.

In the light of the last paragraph above, I find the article's references to the Altius-600 and Spike NLOS weapons intriguing.  Both of the latter aren't exactly UAV's, and aren't exactly missiles;  they can both be "handed over" to guidance from different platforms, loiter over an area in reconnaissance mode (in the Spike's case, looking for targets), and generally make a longer-term nuisance of themselves in areas where the helicopter that launched them might not be able to survive enemy fire.  We're seeing "crossover" technology in action, where UAV's and missiles are less distinct from each other, more dual-purpose and flexible.

In that light, it's obvious why FARA was canned.  Even at higher speeds, a 180-knot helicopter simply can't cut it over a battlefield saturated with anti-aircraft missiles capable of ten times that speed or more.  It's too big and slow a target, comparatively speaking.  It would do no better than existing helicopters - so why not keep the latter, and save money by not developing the former?  It's far more difficult to detect much smaller ALE's and missiles, and much harder to shoot them down, so it makes sense to let them handle the well-defended battlefield airspace and treat the helicopter as a sensor integration and launching platform.

However, this gives rise to another question.  If helicopters have to adapt to that role, what about tanks?  I don't think we've seen the end of the tank, but its role on the battlefield may change, making it too a sensor integration and launching platform for other weapons - not a primary weapon in itself.  Nobody knows right now, but I'd hate to be a tank crew on a modern battlefield.  Video footage from Ukraine shows why.

It's almost impossible to evade detection by such a drone, particularly when there are dozens, even hundreds of them saturating a battle space.  A helicopter, or even multiple helicopters, could never achieve such saturation coverage - it would be far too expensive to buy that many helicopters, and every time one was shot down, the loss of its highly trained crew and an extremely costly machine would drain defense budgets.

I'm glad my soldiering days are done.  I suspect the battlefields of the future will be far more automated, and probably far more lethal.



tweell said...

Energy weapons, long in coming, could be the answer to drone warfare. A focused microwave beam or laser with radar guidance and enough power behind it would clear the skies above the battlefield. Tanks would be purpose built or modified to carry this equipment.

A stopgap measure would be anti-drone drones. Ram and boom!

Skyler the Weird said...

Even future soldiers will be Automated like a Cylon Centurion.

Anonymous said...

Back in the middle 1980s I recall a gunship pilot had about 3 minutes of life on the battlefield. Scout pilots did what the drones are doing now and even in the 1990s with the AHIP (armed scout) program they were blowing stuff up. Today it's seconds. It's just too lethal out there. I am glad I'm a old guy too. I did have a lot of fun though......

Mad celt said...

I think George told on the administration. What's the US army doing messing around on Ukrainian battlefields? Congress has declared no war to cover up the Biden family criminal activities.

Chris Nelson said...

Read today the the Ukrainians would have the money for 3 million more drones for the battle if not for all the corruption siphoning off the cash and other military supplies.

And missiles are rapidly making all warships except submarines obsolete.

Anonymous said...

George's predecessor and the G-8 of the Army were both scout Helo and CAV pilots. They could not imagine an Army that does not have full sized helos with pilots in every cockpit. It took both of them retiring to kill that program.


Dan said...

The future of warfare will be increasingly autonamous. With humans becoming collateral damage. The group with the most or best drones etc.will win.

Unknown said...

Energy weapons can take down drones, but will also kill off helicopters.

We aren't there yet, but are getting closer (and hybrid electric power plants in tanks will give them the ability to generate the high amounts of power needed to power such weapons)

The same sort of thing may end up happening at sea, which is why the Navy has been putting so much R&D into energy and gauss weapons,

gauss weapons aren't unlimited ammo like lasers, but not needing chemical propellant, they will allow far more rounds to be carried (assuming you have a suitable power supply), and the much higher velocities will result in much higher hit rates. Think the CWIS (r2d2 anti-air guns on ships) ramped up significantly.

Israel is working on the Iron Beam, a laser version of the Iron Dome system, which will reduce the cost of shooting down a projectile from $40,000 per shot to ~$10 per shot. This is able to shoot down mortar rounds. If that can be deployed into battlefield conditions, it will drastically reduce the ability for unarmored flyers to operate.

It could bring about the heyday of the tank (ala Ogre or Bolo) where you have to have lots of armor to survive, and a large power plant to power anti-air/anti-missile systemns.

If such systems can work out to longer ranges, manned aircraft and long range missiles may be in danger, changing Naval warfare to Battleships and Submarines.

countering this, hypersonic missiles move faster to give less time to react, and the curve of the earth will still protect low-flying things, reducing the time available to respond. As we have seen, even a rubber boat can damage a warship if it can move in faster than the decision loop allowing for authority to fire.

David Lang

Unknown said...

an additional note on naval warfare, Ukraine is also showing naval drones being surprisingly effective.

can a fleet keep enough control of the air over itself to fly it's own drones (fixed or rotary wing)?

or is it a situation that as soon as you get close enough to an enemy combatant they will shoot down your air assets rendering them not cost effective? Or is their getting shot down your early warning tripwire?

and what about when you aren't fighting a near-peer enemy combatant, but instead guerilla/insurgent/terrorist forces?

David Lang

HMS Defiant said...

I played Battle Chief at the JTF Joint Ops Center in Egypt once a long time ago and playing Army with their endless prattling about shooting over the FSCL and declaring vast swaths of enemy ground off-limits to everything because it was declared a joint special ops area was quite maddening. Everything took massive coordination and that was just 3rd Army, never mind the Egyptians. None of that would or should last on a modern battlefield and I don't really think the Army has grasped that anymore than it has grasped forward ground based air defense since it still believes it will always have both/either air supremacy or air superiority over any potential battlefield.
The barriers to our declaration of any weapon of mass destruction = a nuke lost its shininess after the Chinese got away with unleashing a massive killer biological attack on us and the rest of the world. People might not think we're serious or committed and I don't like to think about playing war in a chemical environment.
Wow, just listening to the 1980s music on Pandora..... brings much of it back.