Within the US military and among the forces of its Nato allies, helicopters have a distinguished service record. These vehicles have not only allowed soldiers to carry out vital reconnaissance missions and casualty evacuations, but also proved integral in transporting troops to forward areas and engaging both enemy infantry and armour. Their value on the battlefield, and in tactical supply, is hard to quantify.

At the same time, the models of helicopter in use today date back several decades and, although they remain versatile and impressive, many eyes are turning towards the next generation of rotorcraft. The Apache attack helicopter, for instance, is still viewed as one of the most sophisticated pieces of equipment available to front-line troops. The initial prototype of this twin-turboshaft attack helicopter was, however, first flown in back in 1975, though full production was not approved by the US military until the early 1980s.

With its nose-mounted suite of sensors for target acquisition, night vision systems, M230 chain gun and its capacity to carry sophisticated Hellfire and Hydra missiles, the Apache cuts an intimidating figure on the skyline. It has proved its worth in many environments against numerous foes and is not yet destined for the scrapheap by any means. The same could be said of the Bell UH-1 Iroquois – the Huey – the ubiquitous model that was first developed in the 1950s to serve as a medical evacuation and utility helicopter and earned praise as such throughout the Vietnam War. Similarly, the British multi-purpose twin-engine Lynx, which first went into operation in 1977 and was adopted by a host of nations for utility, search and rescue and anti-submarine operations, will one day be replaced.

As such, military planners across the Western alliance have begun to turn their attention to replacing these dependable assets with a new generation of helicopters. In doing so, close consideration has to be paid to the environment in which these machines will be placed, whether in combat or in the many disaster relief efforts that the modern Western military force finds itself undertaking, as well as which functions of the modern helicopter can be further automated. Decisions on these points, and more, could define what the next generation of military rotorcraft could look like, and how they will be flown, for decades to come.

Platforms for the future

For the US army, the evolution of its rotorcraft fleet is an undertaking that has been over a decade in the making. The establishment of its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme in 2009 came off the back of several important lessons learned during its recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both of these deployments saw the US army rely heavily on its helicopter fleet for deployment and extraction purposes, exposing its limitations in terms of the logistical support required to keep the vehicles running. The goal of FVL was to mastermind the development of a new portfolio of military rotorcraft capable of not only withstanding such intense usage, but also moving faster, travelling further and carrying larger and more versatile payloads – all with lower operating costs.

A key element in this plan is the replacement of the UH-60 fleet under the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) programme, the first of five such capability sets to be developed. FLRAA aims to create a medium-sized assault and utility aircraft with improved speed, range, agility, endurance and sustainability that can take over the duties of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.

Additionally, two new models of future attack reconnaissance aircraft (FARA) are set to be developed to handle missions currently performed using a combination of the AH-64 Apache and the RQ-7 Shadow drone. Sikorsky-Boeing is currently working with the US Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) to build the SB>1 Defiant joint multirole technology demonstrator for the FLRAA programme. The Defiant is designed to offer superior manoeuvrability and agility, with twice the speed and range of existing rotorcraft. Its design parameters were defined so that it can support US army and marine corps assault missions as well as long-range transportation, infiltration and resupply operations.

A key design feature is its rigid co-axial rotor system – with two rotors rotating in opposite directions – and a pusher propulsor on the rear that could enable the vehicle to fly at twice the speed of many conventional helicopters such as the Black Hawk without reducing manoeuvrability.

The company, which is part of Lockheed Martin, has also been developing its ‘X2 technology’ proposition for the past 15 years, a new take on vertical lift mechanics that combines counterrotating rigid rotor blades, fly-by-wire flight controls, hub drag reduction, active vibration control and an integrated auxiliary propulsion system. So far, testing suggests that it could boost performance and also keep down the costs of FLRAA and FARA.

“FLRAA aims to create a medium-sized assault and utility aircraft with improved speed, range, agility, endurance and sustainability that can take over the duties of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.”

Another prospect for the FARA programme is the V-280 Valor, which relies on a tiltrotor design, with two rotors positioned to the side of the main body that can tilt forward to provide the forward thrust of a turboprop aircraft or upwards to deliver the agility of a traditional helicopter. The tiltrotor design makes the V-280 configurable for air assault, special ops, air attack, medevac and utility purposes.

FVL is not stopping there in its search for innovation. Its plans also include adding more artificial intelligence (AI) to FARA, enabling it to fly unmanned at certain times, in line with a concept defined as ‘optional manning’, though with more responsiveness to its environment than conventional autopilot. It is also examining the potential for the helicopter to control specialised drones to enable manned-unmanned teaming.

The army recently awarded ten air-launched effects (ALE) contracts worth $29.75m to companies including L3 Technologies, Rockwell Collins and Raytheon for mature technologies that can autonomously or semi-autonomously deliver effects as a single agent or as a member of a team. A key element in FARA, ALE is intended to enable the penetration of hostile territory to provide essential reconnaissance information, while manned aircraft remain beyond the range of attack.


The budget request for the FVL programme.

Congressional Research Service

Agile and adaptable

The US army confirmed in September 2020 that the FARA and the FLRAA are on budget and on schedule. Its progress has drawn admirers, with the governments of eight countries reported to have sent letters of interest. Talks concerning bilateral agreements are already under way with a number of international partners.

“FVL’s plans also include adding more AI to FARA, enabling it to fly unmanned at certain times, in line with a concept defined as ‘optional manning’, though with more responsiveness to its environment than conventional autopilot.”

In July 2020, the UK announced its formal interest in FVL as part of a wider agreement on capability and equipment modernisation with the US. The agreement, which also covers groundbased systems, is meant to formalise ongoing initiatives between the two countries and improve their ability to work together in future joint operations. Italy, too, has expressed interest in using EU funds provided to prop up its economy to further its defence technology programmes, which could include FVL.

Nations within Nato have been looking closely at their own plans for renewing their helicopter fleets and the Nato Industry Advisory Group (NIAG) – a high-level consultative and advisory body of senior industrialists of Nato member countries, acting under the Conference of National Armaments Directors – has been working on a project to identify, analyse, assess and document advanced rotorcraft technologies.

It has been reported that NIAG has determined that future capability will not be centred on vehicles with a single main rotor, which would align it with the path of development favoured by the US army, with coaxial rotors, tiltrotors and other innovative designs coming to the fore.

In November 2020, France, Germany, the UK, Italy and Greece announced their intention to collaborate on the construction of a new breed of utility helicopter, which would come into service after 2035. Their letters of intent pave the way for the Next- Generation Rotorcraft Capability programme, which Nato confirmed will see an entirely new helicopter capability replace many of the medium multirole rotorcraft fleets currently in service.

Details of design parameters, costs and time frames have not yet been released, though a binding memorandum of understanding is expected for the initial concept phase in 2022.

Whatever the future looks like, there will undoubtedly be an emphasis on versatility. The workhorses of the future rotorcraft fleet will need to handle assault, attack, medevac, urban and utility functions with equal speed, agility and efficiency.