Sikorsky has released new shots of its Raider X prototype aircraft sporting modular weapon launchers loaded with Hellfire missiles and a 20mm main gun.
This prototype Sikorsky’s pitch for the U.S. Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program, as seen at the company’s flight test facility in West Palm Beach, Florida. According to Jay Macklin, business development director for Sikorsky Army Programs and Innovations, the aircraft is about 90 percent complete and Sikorsky says it has 98 percent of the necessary parts on hand to complete the Raider.
The first Raider X competitive prototype in a hanger at Sikorsky’s West Palm Beach, Florida, facility. Sikorsky Photo
“Our acceptance test procedures are more than 50 percent complete,” Macklin said. “We’re working really closely with the U.S. Army on the whole build, and they are extremely involved in every aspect of this and have been great teammates,” Macklin told reporters on June 28.
The two photos released today, seen earlier in this story, show the aircraft’s fuselage sitting in a hangar in West Palm called “FARA Country.” The three-barreled main gun is seen mounted under the aircraft’s chin. Its modular effects launchers are extended but can be folded into the fuselage to reduce drag during flight. Those pods can also be loaded with other munitions, including air-launched drones. They also can be removed to clear space for assault troops or casualty evacuation.
Both halves of the windshield and windows in each of the two cockpit doors are installed. The main rotor mast — or masts, there are two, one inside the other — are installed, but the helicopter’s eight main rotor blades are not present. Also missing is the eight-bladed pusher prop, which would be installed at the end of the tail boom.
Raider X is a compound coaxial helicopter based on Sikorsky’s X2 technology. Sikorsky’s preceding S-97 Raider prototype, another outgrowth of the X2 project, served as an 80-percent surrogate for the larger X variant weighing about 14,000 pounds. The Raider X has a pointier nose than the S-97 and a reversed landing gear arrangement. Other than that, the aircraft are essentially very similar in form.
The S-97 Raider prototype has been flying for years now and has done major risk reduction work for what is now known as the Raider X. Sikorsky image
“The majority of the subsystems are installed on the aircraft and undergoing functionality testing,” said Pete Germanowski, Sikorsky’s chief FARA engineer. “A second fuselage is being built at a separate Sikorsky facility on Long Island, New York. That airframe should be loaded into a test frame in July and will undergo structural load testing.” Data collected from that testing will be used to clear the operational Raider X prototype for flight, Germanowski claimed.
Raider X incorporates Sikorsky’s basic X2 technology. Sikorsky Image
Up against Raider X in the FARA competition is Bell’s 360 Invictus, a conventional single-main-rotor helicopter with a canted tail rotor. Invictus, built in Amarillo, Texas, has been keeping pace with Raider X. The prototypes are supposed to fly off against each other in a set of Army-hosted trials beginning in fall 2023.
Whichever aircraft wins, it will be powered by the General Electric T901 Improved Turbine Engine. However, the teams are unlikely to receive any of those engines for another year, time which Macklin said would be used to continue refining the Raider X design.
FARA is conceived as filling the armed scout role vacated by the retirement of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. That mission is currently being performed by RQ-7 Shadow, and MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones teamed with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. FARA could replace a significant number of AH-64s currently in the Army’s inventory.
Since it first flew in 2015, S-97 has amassed more than 100 flight hours and continues to fly monthly to feed data into the company’s FARA program, Macklin said. Since its first flight in 2015, the S-97 has flown faster than 200 knots — beyond the Army’s 180-knot speed requirement for FARA and well beyond the top speeds of conventional rotorcraft.
Its pusher prop allows for bursts of speed and rapid deceleration, as well as increased maneuverability, all of which the Army desires in its Future Vertical Lift family of advanced rotorcraft. Test pilots routinely impress spectators with Raider’s ability to “pirouette” nose-down around a single point. It can fly forward with its nose up or backward with its nose pointed at the ground, both impossible maneuvers for a conventional helicopter.
It also can fly at top speed with a level attitude, whereas a regular helicopter has to point its nose down to accelerate forward. These capabilities are enabled by the pusher propeller and the rigid, counter-spinning rotors that eliminate the need for a tail rotor. In forward flight, the pusher prop can be activated, and the spinning rotors are slowed to act more like wings than rotors, lessening drag and improving both speed and efficiency. That basically means that, unlike a helicopter where the blades create lift during only part of their rotation, Raider’s blades generate lift on both sides of the aircraft as they spin.
The unique X2 configuration allows maneuverability that is impossible in a conventional helicopter. Sikorsky Image
Raider’s larger brother, the Defiant X — on which Sikorsky is teamed with Boeing — shares the same basic configuration, but is a 30,000-pound contender for the Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) program that will eventually replace at least parts of the UH-60 Black Hawk fleet. In September, the Army is expected to choose between Defiant, and Bell’s V-280 Valor advanced tiltrotor for FLRAA.
Sikorsky has planned its FVL offerings as a family of scalable aircraft with the same basic design and functionality. Sikorsky Image
FARA and FLRAA are both parts of the larger Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative, which remains one of the Army’s six essential modernization priorities. The two programs represent the small and medium entrants, respectively, of what initially was envisioned as a program to replace all of the Army’s existing rotorcraft fleets with new, advanced designs that would enter service in the 2030s.
The Army currently has no plan to pursue a heavy lift counterpart to replace the CH-47 Chinook helicopter, a type that could now be flown into the 2060s, when that core design will approach 100 years old. Other services are also exploring new rotorcraft designs for their own needs under the FVL umbrella, as well.
With speeds nearly double that of legacy helicopters and clean-sheet, open-systems designs that should allow rapid upgrades, and the addition of emerging technologies, Sikorsky has served up seriously capable next-generation designs.
Whether those leaps in speed and maneuverability will be enough for rotorcraft to remain relevant against enemies with sophisticated air defense systems remains to be seen. On both sides of the war in Ukraine, conventional rotorcraft have suffered greatly, especially at the hands of forces armed with man-portable air defense weapons (MANPADS).
When one or the other FARA design enters production in the 2030s, another 10 or so years will have passed with all the attendant advancements in air defense systems. It is worth noting that when the Army first announced this program back in 2019, the service not only acknowledged future air defense threats, but said that this aircraft would be key to breaching them.
Still, the FARA prototypes under development are making marked progress towards their first flights in mid-to-late 2023. Raider X is complete enough that many of its physical attributes are discernable. If all goes as planned, its flight capabilities should be on display a little over a year from now.