The US Army has started flight testing weapons systems for its next-generation scouting helicopter, the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA).

In October, the service started flight testing the General Dynamics XM915 20mm Gatling gun and a prototype Modular Effects Launcher. Both systems are intended for eventual fielding on FARA, the US Army’s replacement for the retired Bell OH-58D Kiowa scout helicopter. The systems were tested on a modified Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, which was used as an airborne testing platform in place of the next-generation rotorcraft.

Prototype Modular Effects Launcher on UH-60 Black Hawk airborne testing platform - October 2021 c US Army

Source: US Army

The US Army is testing its Modular Effects Launcher

Bell’s 360 Invictus winged helicopter is competing against Sikorsky’s Raider X co-axial, pusher propeller helicopter in the FARA programme. The service has said it aims to select a winner by the fall of 2023 after a fly-off competition. It wants the winning rotorcraft fielded to its first unit by 2030.

The US Army wants FARA to have a cruise speed of 180kt (333km/h) and a rotor diameter no greater than 12.2m (40ft). To be able to achieve that speed requirement, the small helicopter will try to maintain a slick aerodynamic form by storing its missile, rocket and air-launched effects payloads internally. Two Modular Effects Launchers, one on each side of FARA, will hold weapons and then extend outside of the helicopter for launch.

The service wants the Modular Effects Launcher to be able to mix and match a variety of payloads. As opposed to the weapons stations for the Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, which can only be configured to carry one type of weapon at a time, the US Army wants FARA’s launchers to be more flexible.

Sikorsky Raider X

Source: Sikorsky

The Modular Effects Launcher would pop out before weapons deployment, as pictured in this rendering of the Sikorsky Raider X

Arming the AH-64 often forces a “false choice” for army aviators, says Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Keogh, chief of flight tests for US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command.

“A lot of times I have to carry a 19-shot rocket pod and I really only need two rockets. Or, I can only carry Hellfires on my Hellfire missile launcher,” he says.

Alternatively, the Modular Effects Launcher has four stations that can be configured individually to carry any combination of missiles, rockets or air-launched effects. Air-launched effects are a sort of multipurpose air-launched drone.

“In this configuration, I can make informed decisions based upon the mission type. You have a cocktail that fits the mission,” says Keogh.

FARA is also coming with a new gun, the XM915. The Gatling gun is significantly more powerful than the M3P .50 caliber machine gun that the OH-58D carried. It has three-barrels and is electrically actuated, allowing it to fire 1,500 rounds per minute, versus 1,025 rounds per minute for the single-barreled .50 caliber system.

“It shoots fast. It shoots well,” says Keogh of the several hundred rounds the US Army had fired from the XM915 in October.