In a major announcement, the US Army revealed on December 5 that it has awarded the hotly anticipated Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) contract to Bell Textron and its V-280 Valor tiltrotor – a platform that will eventually replace the service’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and shape the future of US Army Aviation operations.
The market-defining FLRAA award – which is worth an initial US$1.3bn, but follow-on production contracts could see the programme’s worth grow to the range of US$70bn over its lifetime – marks the US Army’s largest helicopter procurement decision in more than 40 years. The decision to select the V-280 Valor, a second-generation tiltrotor, to eventually succeed the US Army’s venerable Black Hawk fleet is not just a major win for Bell Textron domestically, but also a victory for the firm on the world stage, given that many US allies and partner nations are likely to follow the Army’s lead when seeking to replace their own assault/utility helicopter fleets in the future, many of which are currently operate a variant of the UH-60.
Following the initial announcement, a media roundtable between US Army officials and reporters provided some additional details on the contract award. During which, Maj Gen Robert Barrie – the US Army’s Program Executive Officer for Aviation – said that an initial contract obligation, valued at US$232m, will be given to Bell Textron over the next 19 months, allowing the company to continue working on the preliminary design of the aircraft and deliver virtual prototypes of a potentially model-based system by 2025.
Doug Bush, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, highlighted that the selection of Bell’s V-280 marked a “momentous” day for the US Army. “The thoughtful and disciplined execution of the FLRAA programme strategy will deliver the transformational capabilities we need to support the Joint Force, strengthen deterrence and win in multi-domain operations,” he added.
Commenting on the announcement on December 5, Maj Gen Walter Rugen – director of the Army’s FVL Cross-Functional Team (CFT), said: “This down-select represents a strategic pivot for Army Aviation to the transformational speed and range our Army needs to dominate future battlefields. The prototyping and risk-reduction efforts allowed the Army to significantly reduce the time needed to get to today’s announcement.”
Initially developed and tested under the Army’s Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR TD) programme – the precursor to FLRAA – that began in 2013, the V-280 has progressed through the design/manufacturing phase and has completed more than three years of flight testing to validate its technical and operational capabilities. Officially launched in 2019, the FLRAA programme falls under the umbrella of the US Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative to modernise the capabilities and aviation assets used by the service and pitted the Valor tiltrotor against Sikorsky-Boeing’s Defiant X compound coaxial helicopter – the former eventually beat out this stiff competition.
Scott C Donnelly, chairman and CEO of Textron Aviation – which purchased Bell Aerospace in 1960 – said: “We are honoured that the US Army has selected the Bell V-280 Valor as its next-generation assault aircraft. We intend to honour that trust by building a truly remarkable and transformational weapon system to meet the Army’s mission requirements. We are excited to play an important role in the future of Army Aviation.”
Following the contract award, Sikorsky and Boeing both issued a statement stating that they “remain confident Defiant X is the transformational aircraft the US Army requires to accomplish its complex missions today and well into the future. We will evaluate our next steps after reviewing feedback from the Army.”
While the Valor prototype completed its first flight on schedule in December 2017, the Sikorsky-Boeing team faced a myriad of delays caused by issues in producing the Defiant technology demonstrator’s rotor blades. Despite initial plans to fly what was dubbed the SB>1 Defiant by the end of 2018, a series of problems with the aircraft’s powertrain were discovered, causing the demonstrator’s first flight to be delayed until March 2019. Before its retirement in June 2021, Bell’s V-280 prototype flew more than 214 flight test hours, in which it reached a maximum cruising speed of 305kts and demonstrated its low-speed agility, long-range cruise and autonomous flight capabilities.
The US Army plans to start fielding the V-280 – along with the winner of the still-ongoing Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) programme (either Bell’s 360 Invictus or Sikorsky’s Raider X) – by around 2030, to remain in-line with the service’s modernisation and capability goals. A program of record (POR) for the number of V-280s the Army is looking to procure has yet to be determined, but it is expected to be high given that the tiltrotor will ultimately replace the air arm’s various UH-60 fleets.