This Is Our First Look At The Army's New 20mm Aerial Cannon On An Actual Helicopter
The XM915 cannon is being tested on a UH-60 Black Hawk, but is under development for the Army's Future Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft.
The U.S. Army has given us our first look at a UH-60 Black Hawk testbed carrying its new XM915 20mm Gatling-type automatic cannon and firing the gun in flight. The service expects this gun to be part of the arsenal for its Future Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft, or FARA. Bell's Invictus 360 and Sikorsky's Raider X, two advanced helicopter designs, are competing against each other to win the final FARA contract.
The Army conducted the first aerial tests of the XM915, including firing it in flight for the first time, using the UH-60 testbed in October as part of the Project Convergence 2021 exercise. This is the second Project Convergence event to date, which the service has been using to test and evaluate a wide array of new and advanced weapons and other systems, as well as concepts of operations to go with them. Project Convergence 2021 is taking place at both the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona and the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and is expected to wrap up this month.
"It shoots fast, it shoots well, and it shoots accurately," Army Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Keogh, the Chief of Flight Test for U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, did say about the XM915's performance in a statement released earlier this month. "As a previous attack and recon pilot, I like it."
However, "this was a demonstration and not a performance test," the U.S. Army's Combat Capabilities Development Command's Aviation and Missile Center stressed to The War Zone in another statement. "What we found is that it was successfully installed the gun on an aircraft and demonstrated its ability to function as an aerial weapon."
Details about the gun, which General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems (GD-OTS) has been developing for the Army since at least 2020, remain limited. The U.S. Army's Combat Capabilities Development Command's Armament Center told The War Zone that it weighs 115 pounds and that it is an electrically-driven Gatling-type design that fires 20x102mm electrically-primed ammunition. Guns that use electrical impulses rather than a traditional firing pin to detonate the primer on individual cartridges have been in use for decades and it is a design feature found on various aircraft cannons. The weapon's rate of fire was not releasable.
The weight is interesting given that the XM915 is, by every indication, an evolution of the lightweight XM301 that GD-OTS developed for the Army's abortive Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66A Comanche stealth scout helicopter. The XM301 is 80.5 pounds, according to the manufacturer's website, meaning the XM915 is heavier. The XM301, as installed on the RAH-66A, also had two selectable rates of fire, 750 rounds per minute and 1,500 rounds per minute.
The Comanche was designed to be a stealthy helicopter and the mounting for the XM301 allowed it to be rotated to the rear and then stowed behind a low-observable fairing when not in use. It's unclear whether either the Invictus 360 or the Raider X are designed with similar considerations in mind, but the Bell helicopter is certainly not optimized for stealth. Artists' conceptions of the Raider X that have been released so far do show what could be a similar fairing behind the gun turret.
The Comanche program was canceled in 2004 due to cost growth and technical issues, at which point the Army had already spent some $7 billion on the helicopter's development. The RAH-66A was intended to be a replacement for the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopter, which the Army ultimately retired without a direct successor in 2017. The service subsequently established units equipped with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to perform armed reconnaissance missions.
The winning FARA design is now expected to assume this and other roles as something of a spiritual successor to the OH-58D. In addition to the XM915, the FARAs are expected to be capable of firing various missiles, including the AGM-179A Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM), along with future "Air Launched Effects," or ALEs. The Army's vision for the ALEs is a family of systems that includes multiple types of air-launched drones and loitering munitions, which you read more about here. The service has been testing a new Modular Effects Launcher, a launch rack designed to carry a variety of different missiles and ALEs at once, using a UH-60 surrogate at Project Convergence 2021, as well.
It remains to be seen whether the final FARA design that the Army picks will indeed feature the XM915. The service doesn't expect to pick a winning offer until sometime between late 2023 and 2024. In March, Northrop Grumman unveiled a new single-barrel 20mm cannon, the Sky Viper, which the company says it is pitching to the Army as an alternative option.
There is a possibility that the XM915 could be of interest to other users. Last year, the Army acquired an ex-U.S. Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter to use for various integration and other ground testing related to this gun. At that time, the service said that it planned to mount the cannon on a newer AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter for flight tests in the future. The AH-1Z, like the AH-1W before it, is currently armed with a 1960s-era M197 20mm Gatling-type cannon, which weighs 132 pounds. The lighter XM915 might offer a relatively easy upgrade option for AH-1Zs in Marine Corps service, as well as Vipers and older AH-1s flying in other countries around the world.
Beyond that, though the Army only intended its XM915-armed Black Hawk to be a surrogate testbed, together with GD-OTS, it has now demonstrated that the gun is a potentially viable option as a forward-firing weapon for variants of the S-70/H-60 family. The Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment already operates MH-60s configured as Direct Action Penetrators (DAP) armed with various forward-firing weapons, including the same 30mm M230 cannon found on the AH-64. The U.S. Navy has fielded a forward-firing gun pack containing an M197 cannon for its MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters for use against certain close-in threats, such as small boat swarms and drones. Other countries operate variants of the Black Hawk/Sea Hawk line with forward-firing guns.
No matter what, with the Army now conducting aerial tests of the XM915, we may start to learn more about the gun's capabilities and what the future might hold for it beyond the FARA program.
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