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Bell’s Valor, Sikorsky/Boeing Defiant advance in U.S. Army Future Assault Aircraft program

By Dan Parsons | March 16, 2020

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 59 seconds.

Bell’s V-280 advanced tiltrotor and the Sikorsky-Boeing SB>1 coaxial compound helicopter are now the two official contenders for the U.S. Army’s Future Long Range Assault Aircraft, or FLRAA.

The Army announced the competitive demonstration and risk reduction (CD&RR) contracts March 16, after a protracted industry-led demonstration program that launched both aircraft and gathered reams of data on their flight characteristics.

The V-280 expects to complete all the key performance parameters in the coming months, including additional low-speed agility tests and full cruise speed in forward flight. Bell Photo
The V-280 expects to complete all the key performance parameters in the coming months, including additional low-speed agility tests and full cruise speed in forward flight. Bell Photo

The Army’s Aviation program office, working with Army Contracting Command at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, awarded the project agreements under the Aviation and Missile Technology Consortium Other Transaction Authority (OTA), and the agreements were not announced through the Pentagon’s regular contract award process. Using OTAs allows the Army more flexibility than the Defense Department’s traditional contracting process, but also does not require the service to publish contract amounts.

These competitively awarded OTA agreements consist of risk reduction activities that combine government research with input from industry partners to inform the future development and procurement of the FLRAA weapons system, according to a copy of the public announcement obtained by Vertical.

Under the agreements, each company will produce initial conceptual designs, requirements feasibility, and trade studies using model based systems engineering. These CD&RR agreements will extend over two years, informing the final Army requirements and the program of record planned for competition in 2022.

“These agreements are an important milestone for FLRAA,” said Patrick Mason, program executive officer for Army Aviation. “The CD&RR continues to transition technologies from the JMR-TD effort to the FLRAA weapons system design. We will be conducting analysis to refine the requirements, conceptual designs, and acquisition approach. Ultimately, this information and industry feedback are vital to understanding the performance, cost, affordability, schedule risks and trades needed to successfully execute the FLRAA program.”

The Sikorsky-Boeing SB>1 Defiant exceeded 100 knots and performed maneuvers at 30 degrees angle of bank at the Sikorsky Development Flight Test Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 13. Lockheed Martin Photo

FLRAA is the program of record that resulted from years of investment into the Joint Multi-role Technology Demonstration (JMR-TD) program that sought to study what leap-ahead vertical lift capabilities industry could deliver on relatively short notice.

Both the SB>1 Defiant and V-280 Valor were financed partially by the U.S. government through the JMR-TD program and partially through each company’s internal research and development funding, to the tune of more than half a billion dollars each. Data gathered on those designs likely will form the basis of each company’s final FLRAA design. Funding for the new CD&RR phase is flipped, with government covering two thirds of the funding and industry pitching in one third. An ultimate winner will take home the FLRAA contract in 2022.

That public-private teamwork played a major role in the decision process, according to Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, director of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Cross-Functional Team.

“I’m very proud of the collaborative work done by this team of teams and excited about the award of the OTA agreements for the CD&RR efforts to continue burning down risk and setting conditions for the FLRAA program four year acceleration,” Rugen said. “We appreciate the support from Congress and Army senior leaders that postures FLRAA for a stable and executable program of record.”

Informed by the development and operational experience of the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey, the V-280 improved upon its predecessor with tilting nacelles and large side egress doors. Bell got out to an early lead and has been flying aggressively since December 2017. Since then it has achieved speeds of 300 knots in forward flight. In late 2019, Valor demonstrated an end-to-end autonomous flight.

Under the agreement Bell will deliver a refined V-280 Valor design, with supporting technical documentation, that builds on the data captured during the more than 170 hours of flight testing under JMR-TD, the company said in a statement.

“Bell and Team Valor are excited to continue working on a system that has proven its ability to bring exceptional capabilities to warfighters,” Bell CEO Mitch Snyder said. “The JMR TD and V-280 show that rapid maturation of new technology is possible with a solid government-industry partnership fueled by our talented and innovative workforce. We look forward to the FLRAA competition.”

For JMR, Boeing jumped ship and teamed with Sikorsky, now owned by Lockheed Martin, on its coaxial X2-inspired Defiant. The 30,000-pound coaxial rigid-rotor design includes a pusher propeller like its smaller cousin the S-97 Raider.

Sikorsky and Boeing’s joint Defiant team said in a statement it is “honored the Army selected our proven, game changing X2 Technology for the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft Competitive Demonstration and Risk Reduction program.”

“We look forward to developing this vital Army modernization capability,” the Defiant team said in a prepared statement. “Since 2013, we committed to developing an aircraft and integrated weapon system solution that combines speed, range, maneuverability and system flexibility — to execute the Army’s joint all-domain operations.”

Defiant first flew in March, lifted off twice more in April 2019 and then was earthbound for several months while engineers sorted out a bearing creep issue found on the ground-based propulsion system test bed.

Defiant returned to flight in late September 2019, flew several more times last year and was airborne once every week in 2020. It has achieved speeds of at least 100 knots and plans are to expand the aircraft’s performance envelope in 40-knot increments out to at least 250 knots.

“We are confident we will deliver a producible FLRAA aircraft that is survivable, affordable, sustainable and provides Army aviators strategic day one battlefield advantages,” the SB>1 team said.

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