Bell, partnered with Collins Aerospace, has unveiled its candidate for the US Army's Future Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) programme, the '360 Invictus.'
The US-based helicopter manufacturer boasts that the proposed single-rotor concept, unveiled on 2 October, will be the most suitable solution to the US Army's FARA programme, which forms part of the service's Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme alongside the Future Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) and Future Advanced UAS programmes. The FARA programme intends to fill a capability gap left following the retirement of the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior light observation, reconnaissance and attack helicopter fleet in 2017. That capability gap is currently been covered by US Army Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters.
Bell has partnered with Collins Aerospace on the programme, with Bell being one of five main companies to have been awarded contracts to design a prototype to submit for the FARA programme. However, following the bids, the US Army will choose just two companies to move forward and develop prototypes and the service aims to have airworthy prototypes by 2023, with a production decision being made later in the decade. Bell have stated that they are aiming to fly the '360 Invictus' by 2022.
Bell have been quick to point out the key features of their 360 Invictus platform concept, which bears a striking resemblance to the Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche prototype which flew in the late 1990s, with its sleek, blended fuselage design, retractable landing gear and 20mm cannon on the nose bears a striking resemblance to that employed on the cancelled RAH-66 Comanche. Unlike the Comanche, however, the Invictus is not designed to have a stealth capability. The 360 Invictus, like the RAH-66 before it, is designed to operate and manoeuvre efficiently at high speeds and will feature a retractable undercarriage, internal weapon bays, a ducted tail rotor at a canted angle (saves power) and a shrouded main rotor.
As per the helicopter's specifications, the Bell 360 Invictus is essentially a smaller version of the 525 Relentless commercial helicopter, for instance the diameter of the high-speed rotor blades has been reduced to fit within the US Army's FARA specifications. Bell have noted that the 525 Relentless has exceed speeds of 200 knots (kts), which exceeds the US Army's requirement for an aircraft which can exceed 180kts, meaning that if the same speeds are produced by the Invictus, it ticks that box. Bell also boasts that the aircraft will have a combat range of 135 nautical miles (nmi) with a payload of 1,400lbs and an ability to stay on station for 90 minutes. The 360 Invictus' design features horizontal stabilisers which will help reduce drag at high speeds and two lift-sharing wings to offload work from the main rotors. A full fly-by-wire flight control system will help to reduce aircrew workload, whilst synthesising technology and creating a path to autonomous flight undertaken by the platform. The Bell 360 will be powered by a single engine being developed by General Electric under the US Army's Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP). The aircraft will require two aircrew members to pilot in a tandem-seat configuration.
In terms of armaments, Bell state that the helicopter will feature a 20mm rotary cannon under its nose, internal weapon bays, an integrated munitions launcher and the capability for air-launched effects integration, all of which give the Invictus some sharp teeth when it comes to its employment in the battlespace. Focusing mainly on reliability, adaptability and affordability, Bell are looking to produce a light attack and reconnaissance helicopter which is fit for use across all domains of conflict, be it in open spaces, forests or urban city settings.
The term Invictus, as is what Bell have decided to call the concept, translates to "unconquerable" or "undeafeated" in Latin, suggesting the famed helicopter manufacturer is confident of a successful campaign in the FARA contest. "The Bell 360 will deliver advanced battlefield situational awareness, as well as lethal options, in support of the manoeuvre force at an affordable cost," says Vince Tobin, the Executive Vice President of Military Business at Bell. He adds that "The multi-domain fight will be complex, and our team is delivering a highly capable, low-risk solution to confidently meet operational requirements with a sustainable fleet."
Kieth Flail, Vice President of Advanced Vertical Lift Systems at Bell said: "Bell is committed to providing the U.S. Army with the most affordable, most sustainable, least complex, and lowest risk solution among the potential FARA configurations, while meeting all requirements."
Five companies are currently looking to produce designs for the US Army's FARA programme, after contracts were awarded in April 2019. Lockheed Martin-owned Sikorsky will be fielding their S-97 Raider, which uses the company's X2 coaxial technology and is regarded as the favourite to win the FARA competition. AVX Aircraft Co. have partnered with L3 Communications Integrated Systems and Karem Aircraft teamed up with Northrop Grumman and Raytheon in July, both of which have yet to announce their proposed aircraft. The designs fielded will join those for the FVL programme, which includes proposals from Bell's V-280 Valour tiltrotor, along with Boeing-Sikorsky's SB-1 Defiant, both of which have undergone their first flights.