Army officials question plan for future attack reconnaissance

Army officials question plan for future attack reconnaissance

DENVER — After canceling the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program earlier this year, the U.S. Army has yet to earnestly invest in its manned attack helicopter or other capability to fill the armed recon role, and service leaders warn that without a clear plan, its ability to fight as effectively in future wars could be in jeopardy.

The Army has talked about how unmanned systems and sensors will largely perform such a mission along with the AH-64E Apache attack helicopter when required, but little money is programmed to be spent on the aircraft in the coming years.

While there are plenty of ideas streaming in from industry, the service is still working through technology that will be critical to integrate pilots, drones and soldiers on the ground to fill the mission and has yet to present a clear upgrade plan for the Apache.

And even four-star combatant commanders have questions.

“The Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, or FARA, was to deliver the capability to identify and destroy [anti-access, area denial] bubbles to create advantages for [the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft] to exploit,” Gen. Laura Richardson, U.S. Army Southern Command commander and an Army aviator, said in an April 25 speech at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference here.

“FARA intended to combine our pilots with high end capabilities that unmanned systems provide and create advantages against adversaries. What is going to meet that requirement?” she asked. “What is going to replace the Apache that we’ve taken risk in, in order to field FARA?”

The Army should at least be upgrading and matching sensors to the firepower in the Apache to keep pace with rivals, Richardson said.

“While the Army has not announced any investment in our current attack helicopter, our strategic adversaries are doubling down,” she said.

What’s the plan of attack?

When the Army canceled FARA – citing the changing character of war and observations made in Ukraine – it argued a manned helicopter was no longer survivable against near-peer adversaries in a high-end fight. The Army said it would make investments in other aviation capability and touted the performance of the Apache in the armed scout role.

AH-64s teamed with Shadow unmanned aircraft systems have filled that role since the Army canceled the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter in 2013.

Even so, the initial investment, the Army said at the time it killed FARA, would be to buy more UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters and CH-47F Block II Chinook cargo helicopters. It’s working toward multiyear contracts for both aircraft, with a goal of minting a new UH-60M deal in fiscal 2027. But neither of those aircraft will fulfill the armed scout mission.

Maj. Gen. Wally Rugen, the director of the Army aviation in the G-3/5/7, emphasizing the continued need for manned aviation, told the same audience at AAAA that unmanned aircraft in armed reconnaissance is needed, but “we need them to team with our crewed aviation to be decisive.”

While the Army has stated the Apache will continue to serve in the armed scout role when necessary, it took a risk with the Apache fleet, Rugen noted, and said not only do improvements to Apache need to be made if it will fill in that role, but the service should consider replacing 16 crash damaged aircraft.

Those aircraft are not funded in FY25 or the subsequent four years of the budget cycle, he noted.

Additionally, the Army has three squadrons of Delta-model Apaches that were not going to be bought, “that now we have to look at very closely and see how we fill that in and modernize those three Delta squadrons,” Rugen, whose last job was managing the Army’s Future Vertical Lift efforts including FARA, said.

A year ago, at AAAA in Nashville, Tennessee, Boeing unveiled what it could do for the Apache beyond its latest version. The model on display featured an additional wing pylon, joining the two already there on the current version, to provide additional weapons in a greater variety onboard.

The payloads would count on the additional lift provided by the Improved Turbine Engine Program, or ITEP engine, which has long been delayed. The timeline to integrate ITEP in Apache is farther afield than the UH-60, which is scheduled to received engines in the summer for testing. The Army decided, earlier this year, to delay procurement of ITEP and keep it in research and development for now.

Boeing said it has been working with the Army through its conceptual design and modernization efforts “to ensure that we’re meeting the future needs of the fight,” Christina Upah, company vice president in charge of attack helicopters, told Defense News in an interview at AAAA.

The company is focused on ensuring a modular open system architecture environment to enable rapid integration of technology affordably when the time comes, she noted. Boeing showcased at AAAA how launched effects could be deployed with the attack helicopter.

“Even today, the last couple of days at this event, we’ve heard from a number of senior Army leaders who have communicated that this is the attack reconnaissance helicopter for the future,” Upah said.

“There is a tremendous amount of development effort afoot that we’re doing in partnership with the U.S. Army that can be a part of the modernized Apache as well as efforts that we, Boeing, are doing and spending our investment dollars to invest in this future platform along with our industry partners,” she added.

What’s the limit for UAS?

Army leaders have stressed that unmanned aircraft play an important role in the joint warfighting concept and are taking lessons from the war in Ukraine, which exhibits a change to the character of war.

“The Army plans to increase investment in FTUAS and [launched effects], which is absolutely necessary to fight and win in the air and ground littoral,” Richardson said, “but it may not be sufficient. Unmanned systems provide commanders amazing capabilities but there are limits. UAVs lack situational understanding, situational curiosity and lacks situational agility.”

Manned systems with pilots and crew is “the Army’s asymmetric advantage,” she said.

Rugen agreed. “We have a lot of people confusing swapping UAS at less-than-mortar-round range with some type of decisiveness and it’s not decisive.”

The Army can’t settle on just swarming drone capabilities, it must refine and master the concept of a “wolfpack” of unmanned systems that “goes on the hunt and kills big game,” Rugen said.

“It’s a very complex conversation, we absolutely need [UAS],” Rugen said, but “we need them to team with our crewed aviation to be decisive at the point and time of our choosing.”

The service says it is accelerating procuring modern unmanned aircraft systems like a Future Tactical UAS, launched effects and commercially available small UAS, but clear plans to rapidly get after how an ecosystem of UAS will come together, in some cases, is just beginning to materialize or hasn’t yet.

The Army decided this year to officially retire Shadow, which FTUAS would replace, but according to Rugen there is not enough funding available to accelerate its fielding timetable. The service, instead, is investing some money to buy prototypes and fly them over the next few years with two competing teams.

For UAS to work in the armed reconnaissance role particularly, Rugen said the service needs to get its modular open architecture system established across the current fleet of aircraft, which is a challenge, in order to be able to network and integrate effectively with UAS.

Within the Army’s Future Vertical Lift portfolio, the service is focused heavily on launched effects and is only beginning to flesh out exactly how it will take capability out of the concept and development realm and into fieldable systems.

The service plans to wrap up a prototyping evaluation effort for a medium-range LE in September and will weigh options from rapid fielding to low-rate initial production to more prototyping depending on how things go. The Army is also pursuing a long-range and short-range version, which are farther afield but will begin prototyping soon.

The service plans to also focus heavily on LE at its EDGE aviation demonstration event in the fall. Another focus will be autonomy.

“What has to still evolve is autonomy to completely do a reconnaissance and security mission,” Maj. Gen. Mac McCurry, the Army Aviation Center of Excellence Command commander, said at AAAA. “We are still investing in that path to autonomy. Being able to see and surveil something is a component of reconnaissance, but not sufficient to perform the whole thing.”

The Future Vertical Lift cross functional team in charge of bringing modernized aviation capability to the force in the 2030 timeframe, is increasingly focused on autonomy, according to its director, Brig. Gen. Phillip Baker.

“Autonomy is a critical aspect of all of this. How do you bridge autonomy across all of these systems,” he said. “How does it get integrated? How does it get shared? How do you do mission command?”

Companies like Shield AI are dedicated to increasing autonomy on a wide variety of air assets. Brandon Tseng, the company’s president, told Defense News in a recent interview it is in the process of integrating its artificial intelligence pilot onto a seven different platforms including quadcopters, Kratos’ MQM-178 Firejet and XQ-58 Valkyrie.

“I think what we’re seeing from the drone industry, from our standpoint, with AI and autonomy, if you think about the problem differently, you can still solve a problem with lots of different small things rather than one large thing,” Tseng said.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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