The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the old saying goes. And with Bell Textron’s new proposed helicopter, observers can be forgiven for experiencing a strong sense of déjà vu.
The Bell Invictus 360 is the company’s proposal to provide a new, stealthy scout/attack helicopter, principally to the United States Army. On paper it is impressive enough. Obviously of a low-radar signature, the cited performance for the aircraft is a maximum speed of 180 knts and a combat radius of 135 nm, with a ninety minute time on station.
Weapons are mounted in pop up wings which are sheathed within the fuselage for stealth purposes, further minimising radar cross section. The armament is rounded out by a 20 mm cannon for engaging soft targets and infantry.
As said, on paper (and this is currently all it is, other than some mock ups for defence shows) the aircraft is impressive.
But it also is all too familiar.
Spot the difference?
The second picture is the prototype for the RAH-66 Comanche Reconnaissance and Attack Helicopter. A program launched in the 1980s, the project literally fell at the final hurdle – going as far as to actually have its military designation assigned and two prototypes built and undergoing assessment.
The aircraft was capable of 175 knts and a combat radius of 150 nm. It carried its armament of six Hellfire missiles on pop up wings and featured a 20 mm cannon in the nose of the aircraft.
All sounding familiar?
The Comanche was cancelled by the US Army in 2004 after spending $6.9 billion on development, plus additional fees to the contractors Boeing and Sikorsky. But the army determined that the Comanche was not a viable combat system for their requirements by the time it was ready for deployment. They also stated that the money for the acquisition of Comanche would be better off spent on developing and fielding drones and UAVs, which better fit their aerial reconnaissance and attack needs.
So it is surprising that Bell Textron have suddenly started pushing their new concept. After all, it is not new at all! If both Comanche and Invictus were to be placed next to each other, one suspects only an expert could tell them apart at first glance.
The question is what does the Invictus bring that the Comanche didn’t? Bell states that their new helicopter will have significantly lower operating costs than comparable aircraft. By being able to integrate modern technology that has evolved recently, one assumes that Bell hope to avoid the trap that killed the Comanche – development lag. By the time it was ready for service the technology of the Comanche – which had been cutting edge in the 80s – was obsolete.
It remains to be seen if Bell can convince the US Army to reverse their decision concerning adopting drones for the role. Certainly, Bell seems to be banking on the ability of manned aircraft to remain superior to unmanned ones for the immediate future. We observers will watch with interest to see which way the decision goes.
(Note: I am going to ask Bell what the Invictus brings that UAVs don’t. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.)
Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published in the UK by Little, Brown in September 2018.