WASHINGTON — In the wake of the Army selecting Bell Textron’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor for the coveted Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) competition yesterday, analysts are looking through the tea leaves to figure out what lessons can be learned — and whether the decision will potentially shape the service’s upcoming Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) competition.
During a Monday call with reporters, several army officials broadly discussed why they selected Bell’s tiltrotor bid over Sikorsky-Boeing’s coaxial rotor Defiant X.
“We were seeking the best value approach,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Barrie, the Army’s Program Executive Officer for Aviation. “Using…the requirements that the Army had for us, we then had an evaluation using folks from across the enterprise to go towards a set of factors that would deliver a best value approach to the Army.” While declining to spell those factors out, Barrie emphasized the service did a “comprehensive analysis of a variety of factors.”
Bell has now received a deal worth up to $1.3 billion with the initial obligation valued at $232 million over the next 19 months. This initial funding will enable Bell to continue onward with the preliminary design of the aircraft and deliver “virtual prototypes of a potentially model-based system,” Barrie said. While Bell will not be building an actual aircraft during this period, if the program proceeds as planned an unspecified number of Valors could be produced under a deal worth up to $70 billion — the kind of money that could reshape the global military rotorcraft market.
Assuming, of course, a protest isn’t successful. Which brings up the first topic of interest:
Will There Be A Protest, And What Will Be The Impact?
For now, the Sikorsky-Boeing team said it will request a competition “debrief” from the government this week, and then based on the information it receives, decide if it wants to file a formal protest.
“We remain confident Defiant X is the transformational aircraft the US Army requires to accomplish its complex missions today and well into the future,” the team wrote in a statement. “We will evaluate our next steps after reviewing feedback from the Army.”
Looming over any protest decision is the question of FARA, the potential replacement for the retired OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. For that competition, Bell’s 360 Invictus is up against Sikorsky’s Raider X.
“A CEO or a corporate board is going to have to decide whether causing a ruckus on FLRAA in any way hurts their chances on FARA because if FARA goes ahead on the schedule that has been advertised, it’s the same acquisition officials making the final decision — you’re not waiting until the new administration with new people,” JJ Gertler, a senior analyst with the Teal Group, told Breaking Defense today. “How agitated do you want to get the army?”
While Gertler classified this agitation factor as a “minor consideration,” the team has alternative pathways for delaying or stopping the Army program. One tried and true avenue is backdoor channels through Congress that holds the purse strings and dictates policy — a move Boeing famously executed well during the Tanker Wars of the late 2000s.
Douglas Bush, the assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, told reporters Monday that the service’s FLRAA schedule has “accounted” for a protest but did not disclose what amount of buffer has been factored into the timeline.
As for the debrief timeline, this can fluctuate by a few days but typically, the Army should know within 15 days if the Sikorsky-Boeing team has decided to protest the award decision, according to Barrie.
Absent A Protest, Will The FLRAA Decision Impact The FARA Choice?
“The FLRAA announcement, in some ways, was a contest between two different technologies, two very different visions of what the future of rotorcraft looks like — and the FARA is too,” Gertler said. He noted that he believes Bell had the more technologically advanced FLRAA solution while Sikorsky has that same advantage in the FARA competition — but the question of best technology may take a backseat to the question of industrial health.
“The real issue, and it’s written nowhere in the requirements documents, comes down to the industrial base,” he said. “This is going to be a split decision because the Army doesn’t want to get locked into a single vendor [and] because the Department of Defense doesn’t want to get locked into a single vendor for the entire future of its rotorcraft enterprise.”
“Whichever [contract] was announced first, that increased the odds for the other team winning the second one,” Gertler added.
Not everyone agrees with this point of view, however. Byron Callan, a managing director at Capital Alpha Partners, wrote in a note to investors that he does not believe Bell’s FLRAA win “makes it more or less likely” that Sikorsky, owned by Lockheed Martin, could be awarded the FARA contract.
For any possible FLRAA-FARA split for the sake of the industrial base to happen, however, FARA has to make it to the finish line — and there are reasons for some nervousness that will happen.
FARA flight testing is currently delayed at least a year due, in part, to delays with the Improved Turbine Engine Program. Army officials said Monday they hope to begin flights with these prototypes in fiscal 2024, but that won’t stop speculation about its fate — in part because of lessons learned from the ongoing war inside Ukraine.
“It’s a very challenging environment [in Ukraine] for attack helicopters,” Gertler said. “The degree to which [Army leaders] take that into account or want to think about whether they continue to emphasize attack helicopters or wind up looking for something different — different technologies, whether uninhabited aircraft or anything else — is affecting their thinking and, frankly, the timing.”
How Many Other Nations Will Seek To Buy FLRAA?
FLRAA won’t just impact FARA’s future, however. Even though the program is designed to replace the Black Hawk, the UH-60 is expected to continue production for years to come, and even as it phases out the Valor won’t be the only choice for replacement.
“We expect that [Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin] will continue to see stable demand for the UH-60 Blackhawk from international customers and upgrades/sustainment of the existing global fleet over the balance of this decade and into next,” Callan told investors.
“We reiterate our view that the FLRAA is unlikely to be a 1:1 replacement for UH-60s,” he later added. “As well, the total buy of FLRAAs and the need for other manned rotary-wing aircraft could be impacted in the 2030s by eVTOL and autonomous unmanned air vehicles, such a Kaman’s KARGO product.”
Gertler said he is eager to see what the per unit FLRAA cost will be, and this price point will help determine how many the army buys, as well as international customers. If it’s too expensive, the global community of 28 Black Hawk operators could decide not to make the commitment.