The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk and its many variants have been the backbone of the US Army’s helicopter force for decades. Designed during the Army’s last major helicopter procurement push in the 1980s, the Black Hawk now flies in some form in all of the military services. But its range and speed have become limiting factors in the Army’s airborne assault operations. And to add to the problem, the Army lacks a scout helicopter that meets the demands of deployment overseas. The Eurocopter UH-72 Lakota isn’t combat capable, so AH-64 Apaches have had to play the role of armed scouts with the assistance of drones.
As a result, the Army has two separate helicopter procurement programs running for the first time since the Black Hawk and Apache were in the pipeline. The two programs, which emerged from the “capability sets” of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program, seek Black Hawk and Kiowa replacements that are “optionally manned”—meaning that they can fly with or without an aircrew—as well as being easier to maintain and fly than their predecessors.