Attack Drones? The Army’s New Helicopters Will be Armed to the Teeth


The versatility of a longer, multifunction payload bay seems quite significant, as it enables the possible use of a wide range of weapons and supports the launch of mini-drone targeting and attack ALE.

The Army is building its new Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft with the ability to launch mini-attack drones to either find and identify enemy targets or destroy them by functioning as an explosive. The service is now evaluating a Lockheed-Sikorsky Raider X helicopter and Bell’s Invictus 360.

Bell’s Invictus, for example, is built with an internal weapons bay to launch mini and even medium-sized attack and surveillance drones called Air Launched Effects (ALE).

These mini drones, demonstrated with great effect by the Army in 2020 during its Project Convergence experiment in the Arizona desert, can operate forward from a manned helicopter to identify targets, send back real-time intelligence data and video or even operate themselves as explosives and explode enemy targets. They were an essential element of the Army’s successful AI-enabled networking kill web during project convergence which shortened the sensor-to-shooter timelines from minutes to seconds.

The Bell Invictus 360 is specifically built to execute this mission, with an 82-inch long payload bay configured to reduce drag and carry weapons and ALE for various tasks.

“The payload bay is defined by the Army for us. They’re using those parameters and they’re providing guidance to the ALE developers. Really an ALE medium and ALE large have about the same footprint, maybe the diameter is a little bit bigger, so they’re thinking about the FARA payload bay,” Chris Gehler, Vice President and Program Director Bell 360, Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft, told Warrior in an interview.

The payload bay and internal weapons capacity also adds the advantage of reducing the helicopter’s radar signature. Certainly protruding, sharp edges and shapes such as weapons pylons or angled configurations are likely to generate a more precise rendering or return signal for enemy radar. While the exact extent of the 360s stealth properties may not be available for understandable security reasons, the visible external shape and internal weapons bay seem to exhibit radar signature reducing capabilities. For example, the existing Army Apache has a sharp, rectangular-like structure and protruding, angular weapons pylons, among other design aspects not seen on the Bell Invictus.

“The landing gear goes inside, the weapons pylon goes inside, so we don’t deploy the weapon systems out in the air to cause drag until the pilot needs to employ,” Gehler explained.

The versatility of a longer, multifunction payload bay seems quite significant, as it enables the possible use of a wide range of weapons and supports the launch of mini-drone targeting and attack ALE. Bell has been working with the Army to execute this.

“The wing is structured such that it allows the payload mechanism to come out here and pull out the weapon systems. Then you can fire from either side. This is part of the collaboration that we have with the Army and the manufacturers such that we have the clearance on the deployment of the ALE such that it can get past the aircraft and then deploy,” Gehler explained.

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Courtesy of Bell.

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