The production line for the AH-64E Apache attack helicopter may end in 2026. (Photo: U.S. Army)
In January, as planned, Boeing completed a series of six wind tunnel tests on a 30 percent scale model of an AH-64E Block II compound helicopter, which the company says it could field by the end of 2028 to serve as a gap filler prior to the U.S. Army Future Vertical Lift program coming online, the company said in written response to questions from Rotor & Wing International.
Unveiled last October at the Vertical Flight Society's Helicopter Military Operations Technology (HELMOT) conference in Hampton Roads, Virginia, the AH-64E Block II compound helicopter would feature a wing and a rear propulsor, increase aircraft speed to 185 knots, increase payload to 5,900 pounds hover out of ground effect (HOGE) on takeoff, and increase range to 460 nm.
Boeing plans to present its drag computation and validation of the compound helicopter and an overview of the wind tunnel testing at the VFS conference in Philadelphia this May, .
The AH-64E Block II compound helicopter has not received Army funding but instead has relied on Boeing internal research and development dollars.
"Boeing has invested, over the past 5 years, in research and compiled requirements, conducted sensitivity and trade studies, and designed and execute the six wind tunnel tests," Boeing said.
The company recently said it "seeks to provide an affordable means to keep the current U.S. Army medium attack helicopter, the AH-64 Apache, capable on the highly complex multi-domain battlefield of the future through 2060."
The Army's Cross-Functional Team on Future Vertical Lift is examining an acceleration of the Future Vertical Lift program, as the service on April 23 awarded five industry contracts for the development of the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft.
The Army awarded five Other Transaction in Authority (OTA) for Prototype Agreements for the aircraft design, build, and test of FARA to an AVX/L3 team, Bell, Boeing, Karem Aircraft and Sikorsky.
AVX, which teamed with L3 to offer a coaxial-rotor compound helicopter was awarded a $732 million contract. Bell's pitch, based on the 525 commercial fly-by-wire helicopter technology, earned the company $790 million, according to the federal government's contracting website. Boeing's award came out to $772 million, but the company's official FARA design has been kept strictly under wraps. Karem Aircraft, which specializes in high-efficiency tiltrotor technologies, merited $738 million.
Sikorsky, which is arguably the farthest ahead of the field in developing a FARA candidate with its operational S-97 Raider prototype compound helicopter, was awarded the largest share with $938.4 million.
Boeing has not revealed its design for FARA and said it is "not discussing the details of our offer or doing interviews at this time due to the competitive nature of the program." But the company said "that may change as the program progresses."
FARA — formerly FVL Capability Set 1 — is the farthest along in the Army acquisition process. The Army kicked off the FARA competition last October — a solicitation that lays out a four-phase competitive prototyping effort that should yield operational, experimental aircraft flying by November 2022.
FARA is to replace the AH-64 Apache gunships currently filling in for the retired OH-58D Kiowa Warrior on scout reconnaissance duty in the Army’s 11 heavy attack recon squadrons. Yet, it appears likely that FARA will serve with some version of the AH-64Es into the 2030s.
"Currently there are no plans in place to replace the AH-64Es as the Army’s medium attack helicopter platform," Boeing said. "FARA which, while not a direct replacement for a medium attack helicopter, could replace the reconnaissance role that AH-64Es currently perform in the Heavy Attack Reconnaissance Squadrons (HARS) in each of the Army’s Combat Aviation Brigades. "
Last October, in a visit to Boeing's Mesa, Arizona, Apache plant, Shane Openshaw, Boeing's director of Apache programs — a former Army Apache and Black Hawk pilot — told R&WI that "even using the most aggressive plan they [Army officials] have to replace that fleet with something of the Future Vertical Lift family, there will have to be another evolution of some sort to keep the [AH-64E] aircraft sustainable, ready and relevant to support the warfight out to that time frame."
The Army has conducted an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) on FVL Capability Set 3 — the future long-range assault aircraft (FLRAA) — by using the Black Hawk and various UH-60 upgrades, including the Improved Turbine Engine Program and main rotor and tail rotor enhancements, as a baseline, and Army leaders are scheduled to finalize the results of the AoA by this summer. The military service has not yet disclosed the results of the AoA, but service officials have said that they want to start the FLRAA competition this year.
The Army has budgeted $4.7 billion over the next five years, including $800 million in fiscal 2020, for FVL, which includes FLRAA and the Future Tactical Unmanned Aerial System and FARA.
Asked in written questions what FLRAA could offer the Army that an AH-64E Block II compound helicopter could not, Boeing replied, "Most likely more speed, range, and payload in a larger form factor."