Army To Replace Nearly Half Of Its Apache Gunships With Future High-Speed Armed Recon Helo

Before now, the service had only said that the new rotorcraft would serve as a successor to the now-retired OH-58D Kiowa Warrior.

US Army

. The U.S. Army says it plans to replace nearly half of its AH-64 Apache gunship helicopters with a new pilot-optional attack reconnaissance rotorcraft, which could be either an advanced helicopter or a tilt-rotor design, in the coming years. The service previously only said its goal was to adopt a successor to the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior light scout helicopter with the new types and these new details raise questions about the exact future of the Apache fleet in general.

Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley first alluded to the plan in a response to a question about what the service calls the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program while testifying before Congress on Mar. 26, 2019. Aviation Week’s Defense Editor and our friend Steve Trimble was able to get more details from Milley’s spokesperson and was kind enough to share them on Twitter, before reporting first on the new developments himself.

“The FARA will only replace Apaches in our heavy attack reconnaissance squadrons and this represents about half of the Apache fleet,” the spokesperson said. “The FARA will not replace Apaches in the Attack Reconnaissance battalions.”

This is a major shift from the previously stated plan of simply looking for a follow-on platform to perform the same light scout missions as the OH-58D, the very last of which the Army retired in 2017. This had seemed like an additive requirement. With more 700 AH-64s in various configurations spread across its active-duty component and the Army National Guard, the service now says it is looking to replace close to 350 of those aircraft with the future FARA design, starting within the next decade.

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AH-64 Apaches.

The Army first announced plans for a “Competitive Prototype” fly-off to find a FARA rotorcraft – the service hasn’t said it is looking for a specific configuration, such as a compound helicopter or a tilt-rotorin June 2018. The service’s goal is to be able to reach initial operational capability with whatever design it picks by 2028.

“We’re looking for an aircraft that, without going into specific requirements or classifications, essentially goes further, can see further, can acquire specific targets further and can engage at greater ranges than current exist, and has greater legs – can fly further with a greater payload of weapon systems,” Milley explained on Capitol Hill. “We’re already moving in that direction with research and development and the development of prototypes.”

The Army has otherwise given few details about its requirements for the FARA, which it has also described as a "knife-fighter." The service has said that the rotorcraft will have to be able to fly faster than 230 miles per hour. It will also need to be able to operate in high-risk contested environments full of enemy air defenses, which would presumably require features to reduce infrared and radar signatures, as well as dense urban environments. A robust electronic warfare suite and the ability to fly in a pilot-optional mode are also must-haves. You can read more about the general concept, based on the information available, here.

The S-97 Raider compound helicopter has long seemed the design best positioned to take the lead in the FARA program. Sikorsky, now part of Lockheed Martin, planned from the beginning to make the design capable of unmanned operation. The S-97 is particularly attractive given how mature the design, which is an outgrowth of technology Sikorsky first demonstrated in 2008, is already. A demonstrator has been flying since 2015 and a second prototype is now in flight testing. The Army is considering other designs, too.

Whatever design the Army might choose as the winner of the FARA competition, using these rotorcraft to replace some of its AH-64s could result in a major hit to Apache-maker Boeing’s market share. As it stands now, its best customer is talking about outright retiring or at least displacing half of its helicopters from their current mission. 

There have already been serious questions about whether the AH-64 platform will be able to remain relevant, especially in a high-end conflict environment, through 2048, when the Army plans to retire the very last of the gunships. The Army expects to be integrating significant upgrades into its latest AH-64E Guardian variants through 2026. These include updates to its fire control and targeting systems, improved data sharing and fusion capabilities, better sensors, a more robust ability to work directly with unmanned aircraft, and more, which you can read about in more detail here

Separately, Boeing is in the process of developing a compound helicopter derivative of AH-64E, which will feature a greater top speed and better fuel economy over existing Apaches. So far, the Chicago-headquartered aircraft company hasn't officially said who might be looking to buy this advanced Apache, though the Army seems to most obvious choice, or if it plans to enter this design into the FARA program.

But the Army's now-stated plan to replace the Apaches in roughly half of its units beginning around 2028 raises additional questions about what will happen to those helicopters afterward. Though the FARA will supplant them in the Attack Reconnaissance Squadrons, the Army might not necessarily get rid of the AH-64s from those units entirely.

The Army only began creating the "heavy" Attack Reconnaissance Squadrons with AH-64s in the first place to try to mitigate the loss of its 340 OH-58Ds. In 2014, the service decided to retire the Kiowa Warriors without purchasing a specific replacement as a controversial budget-cutting measure

However, the service didn’t buy 340 additional Apaches in order to build these "new" squadrons. It created them in no small part by reorganizing existing AH-64 units, including yanking a significant number of the gunships from Army Reserve and National Guard units, which caused a major outcry both within the Guard and in Congress when the plan became public in 2014. As of January 2018, the Guard, across all states, had just 72 AH-64s in four understrength battalions. The Army Reserve stopped flying them altogether in 2016.

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AH-64E Apaches assigned to 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment during a training exercise.

At the same time, using the FARA to replace the AH-64s in the Attack Reconnaissance Squadrons raises additional questions about how the Army envisions using its future rotorcraft and what sort of mix of the two platforms it might actually operate going forward. If the Army existing AH-64-equipped units  – Attack Reconnaissance Squadrons and Attack Reconnaissance Battalions – seem confusingly similar, that’s because they are. 

We’ve reproduced their respective mission sets, which are near identical, below, straight from the latest official Army Aviation manual. The order the missions appear in does reflect the different priorities of the two units, but the Army insists that both unit types are fully capable of performing all of the listed functions.

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The mission sets for the Attack Reconnaissance Squadron, at left, and the Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, at right.

At full strength, both units have 24 Apaches. The most significant difference is that Attack Reconnaissance Squadron also includes a dozen RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aircraft. The Attack Reconnaissance Battalion also includes a separate company of larger MQ-1C Gray Eagles. Apaches have worked together in manned-unmanned teams with the MQ-1Cs, but the drone companies also often operate independently.

How capable the FARA is or isn't at conducting the "attack" mission in the Attack Reconnaissance Squadron could present a greater challenge to the future of the Apache in general. The assumption is that any successor to the OH-58 would not have the capability to provide the same volume of fire as the AH-64, but this might not necessarily be the case.

The Army's abortive RAH-66A Comanche stealth helicopter was also supposed to be an OH-58D replacement and work in concert with AH-64s. But its "Reconnaissance Attack" designation was also reflective of the fact that it had provisions to carry a loadout very similar to that of the Apache, and certainly much heavier than that of the Kiowa Warrior, in a non-stealthy configuration, as necessary.  

Sikorsky

Proposed loadouts for the RAH-66A Comanche, including one with 14 Hellfire missiles, just two shy of the maximum load that an AH-64 can carry.

It's hard not to see some shades of the Comanche in what we know about the FARA so far, in general. It's also not surprising that the Army would not want to make this comparison given that the RAH-66A has since become a case study in procurement missteps and a prime example of the kinds of past mistakes the service says it is working to avoid making now. 

Further confusing matters about Army's plans for the FARA, the service has also said it expects it to be an “Echelon Above Division” asset, at least initially. This suggests it would not necessarily be available to support smaller combat units and that more senior commanders would have discretion over how, where, and when to employ it, similar to the way the service’s specialized fixed-wing intelligence gathering aircraft operate. This is not at all how it employed the OH-58Ds in the past or how it understands the role of the AH-64-equipped Attack Reconnaissance Squadrons now.

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This 2015 briefing slide offers a good understanding of how the Army's aviation assets fit into the different command echelons. The level marked here as "tactical" is the "Echelon Above Division" where the service says FARA will sit. Note that the AH-64, as well as the OH-58, are seen down at the brigade combat team (BCT) level.

With all this in mind, it remains to be seen just how many Apaches the Army actually retires and when. Any Apaches the service does ultimately declare as excess to its requirements between now and 2048 could easily go to U.S. allies and partners, some of whom are just starting to build their AH-64 fleets.

Exactly what happens after 2018 appears to be open-ended, as well. "A future attack aircraft that replaces Apache could be a follow-on program for Future Vertical Lift," Chief of Staff Milley's spokesperson said, indicating that the service does not have a firm plan right now for how it expects to replace the AH-64 for good.

The Army had initially expected to replace the AH-64s as part of the up-coming over-arching Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, which has the goal of developing new rotorcraft to replace all of the service's existing helicopters. An Apache replacement had been part of FVL's medium segment, also referred to Capability Set 3, but the immediate focus there has since shifted there to acquiring a Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) to replace only the UH-60 Black Hawk family. 

The understanding is also that FARA is the path toward realizing an aircraft to meet FVL’s light segment. But if the chosen aircraft proves sufficient to take on certain roles the Apache had performed in the past, it is possible that the Army might decide to replace more its AH-64s with the new rotorcraft. The original contracting notice for the Competitive Prototype fly-off noted that the service might purchase up to 500 of these rotorcraft in the future.

Regardless, the Army has now laid out a roadmap for a major restructuring of its armed reconnaissance rotorcraft units in the coming years and one that could mark the beginning of the end for the venerable AH-64 and could knock the Apache from its pole position of being the Army's one stop shop for rotary-wing attack and reconnaissance capability.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com