The Sikorsky S-97 Raider helicopter flew two flight demonstrations at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, on April 13 and April 15, 2021. The flight routines highlighted both low-level helicopter maneuverability and the high-speed capability that only Sikorsky’s X2 Technology family of helicopters offers. Photo courtesy Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company.

The Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program (FARA) is the Army’s top priority in the Future Vertical Lift, or FVL, effort, which officials see as a critical tool for penetrating air defense networks in future battle scenarios.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of money at stake — a lot of money.

Winner take all, loser, lose all.

It is for this reason that this week’s demonstration for military brass at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, had to impress.

And by all reports, in demonstrations Tuesday and Thursday, Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider put on an impressive show.

The chopper, which is based on the company’s X2 coaxial-rotor technology, flew high-speed passes, hovered and showed off its maneuverability, according to a Lockheed Martin news release.

Sikorsky’s S-97 is competing against Bell Textron Inc.’s 360 Invictus single-rotor prototype helicopter for the Army’s FARA program, designed to fill a capability gap left by the retirement of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters, Military.com reported.

The single-engine Invictus is a tough competitor, sporting the latest fly-by-wire technology, a stubbed wing that assumes 50% of the lift responsibility at cruise speeds, an advanced GE turbine engine called the T901, a sliding weapons bay designed to handle current and future weapons and keeps the aircraft sleek, a retractable landing gear and a ducted tail rotor.

On the avionics and digital backbone front, Bell chose Collins Aerospace, the same firm that provides the technology for the nifty A/MH-6M Littlebirds used by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

In contrast, to legacy helicopters, Raider will offer a 100% increase in speed and endurance, a 50% decrease in turning radius, a 50% decrease in acoustic “signature,” and a 40% increase in payload — all wrapped in a composite airframe that is 15% smaller then the venerable Kiowa, Forbes magazine reported.

Sikorsky has been flying and testing X2 Technology for more than a decade, accumulating nearly 500 hours on its X2 Technology test beds and aircraft including the X2 Technology Demonstrator, RAIDER and DEFIANT. Photo courtesy Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company.

Whereas the current fleet of Army helicopters is only capable of providing coverage to 40% of Afghanistan, Raider will be able to cover 97%.

That is a huge gain in performance, but it is just the beginning of what Sikorsky is developing — without using any taxpayer money. 

Perhaps the most important feature of the design, though, is its two counter-rotating main rotors that can be separately adjusted to enable hover and maneuver in “high-hot” environments like Afghanistan, Forbes reported.

Because the rotors turn in opposite directions, they eliminate the torque that requires other helicopters to have a stabilizing rear propeller.

The six-blade propeller at the rear of Raider is used instead for forward propulsion, while the main rotors are dedicated to lift. This division of labor reduces aerodynamic drag, bolstering maneuverability.

“Since the first [UH-60 Black Hawk®] took to the skies in the 1970s, to when our teams broke helicopter speed records with X2 Technology in 2010, we have been working with our Army partners to develop and deliver low-risk, transformational, affordable and sustainable aircraft to support the warfighters’ missions,” Sikorsky president Paul Lemmo said in the release.

The single-engine Invictus features the latest fly-by-wire technology and a stubbed wing that adds 50% more lift at cruise speeds. Credit: Bell Helicopter.

“This is the first of what we believe will be many times our X2 Future Vertical Lift aircraft will fly at Redstone.”

Sikorsky test pilots Christiaan Corry and Bill Fell piloted the S-97 at both demos, highlighting the low-level maneuverability and high-speed capability that only Sikorsky’s X2 Technology family of helicopters offer, the report said.

“Flying Raider continues to amaze me,” said Corry, a former US Marine with more than 4,500 flight hours in 25 types of aircraft.

“The combination of the coaxial rotors and the [rear-mounted] propulsor are really the enablers for this transformational technology. As we demonstrated today, in low-speed flight we are as capable as a conventional helicopter, but when we engage the [rear] prop, we are able to operate in a whole new way — it’s much more like flying an airplane.”

Lockheed Martin officials also touted Sikorsky S-97’s Fleet Decision Tool, allowing commanders to accurately diagnose maintenance issues and predict aircraft availability, which increases operational readiness.

“This means that I, as a commander, could look at my aircraft battalion and understand the health of each one of the aircraft and prioritize the right aircraft for the next mission,” Kevin Mangum, Lockheed Martin vice president of Army programs, said in the release.

In addition to the FARA competition, Sikorsky and Boeing are competing in the Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft, or FLRAA, effort to replace the service’s UH-60 fleet, the report said.

According to Wikipedia, FLRAA has an estimated program value of US$40 billion, while FARA could be worth about US$20 billion.

Like the S-97, the Sikorsky-Boeing DEFIANT X features the X2 technology and the rear-mounted propulsor rotor, which is designed to increase the speed of the aircraft.

According to company sources, with its range, speed, superior maneuverability, advanced weapons systems and survivability, DEFIANT X will change the way the Army fights – enabling crews to fly low and fast through complex terrain, land quickly, deliver soldiers and equipment to the objective area (thus “the X”) and get out quickly.

DEFIANT X flies twice as far and fast as the venerable Black Hawk helicopter it is designed to replace, sources said.

“Through this week’s Raider flight and our ongoing test program with Defiant, we are demonstrating the future of Army Aviation,” Mangum said in the release.

“With Raider X, we will fill a critical Army capability gap, providing the speed, reach, lethality and convergence to fight and win on the … battlefield, today and into the future. Defiant X will be the world’s best assault aircraft — like our great Black Hawk — for decades to come.”

Bell Textron is also competing in the FLRAA effort with its V-280 Valor tilt-rotor helicopter prototype, the report said.

Unveiled at the 2013 Army Aviation Association of America’s Annual Professional Forum and Exposition in Fort Worth, Texas, the Valor will have an impressive speed of 280 KTAS and a combat range of 500-800 nm, The EurAsian Times reported.

It will also have a high-tech 360-degree sensor suite quite similar to the one used on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter called a Distributed Aperture Systems, or DAS.

Instead of having sensors mounted to the turret, the Valor has sensors that are mounted to the aircraft – so essentially the pilot will have sensors staring in 360-degrees around the aircraft at any given time.

Those images are stitched together so it appears as one continuous image to the pilot.

The winner of the FLRAA program is expected to be selected in fiscal year 2022, National Defense reported.

A “flyoff” for the FARA competition is scheduled for fiscal year 2023, with a production decision expected in fiscal year 2024.

added during a recent press briefing. “That drives so much of the supply chain.”

Some observers have questioned whether the Army will have enough money to buy high-ticket FARA and FLRAA platforms at the same time given future budget projections.

There is also the risk that the programs might go off the rails.

“FVL isn’t the only game in town, but it is by far the biggest,” Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant and chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute think tank, wrote in a recent op-ed for Forbes magazine.

“If production of legacy rotorcraft ceases to make room for new ones and then FVL fails to deliver, industry might not have enough cash flow to sustain essential skills and suppliers.”

Sources: Military.com, Forbes magazine, Wikipedia, EurAsian Times, National Defense