In a not-so-surprising move, Sikorsky has formally protested the Army’s choice of the Bell V-280 Valor as its Future Long Range Assault Aircraft, or FLRAA, that will eventually replace the UH-60 Black Hawk.
Sikorsky, owned by Lockheed Martin, teamed up with Boeing to offer the Defiant X compound coaxial helicopter for FLRAA. It lost out to Bell, whose V-280 advanced tiltrotor was chosen by the Army as its preferred Black Hawk replacement earlier this month. We laid out, in detail, the implications of the Army's decision in this piece. Bell did not immediately offer a comment on the protest, which requires it to halt primary production on Valor until resolved.
That initial contract award is $232 million. It includes no actual aircraft. Instead, the contract covers Valor's final digital design that Bell has generated as a result of the aircraft's five-year-long flight testing period and development campaign, inclusive of Army requirements.
Filed on Dec. 28, the protest automatically halts work on the FLRAA program while the Government Accountability Office (GAO) weighs Sikorsky’s objections to the Army’s selection. Sikorsky President Paul Lemmo confirmed the filing Thursday afternoon.
“Based on a thorough review of the information and feedback provided by the Army, Lockheed Martin Sikorsky, on behalf of Team DEFIANT, is challenging the FLRAA decision,” Lemmo said in a prepared statement. “The data and discussions lead us to believe the proposals were not consistently evaluated to deliver the best value in the interest of the Army, our soldiers, and American taxpayers. The critical importance of the FLRAA mission to the Army and our nation requires the most capable, affordable, and lowest-risk solution. We remain confident DEFIANT X is the transformational aircraft the Army requires to accomplish its complex missions today and well into the future.”
Lemmo spoke with The War Zone one-on-one later Dec. 28 to offer some nuance on the decision to protest. The move was debated at the highest levels of Lockheed leadership and ultimately was seen as the thing to do, given the outsized stakes of replacing at least a large portion of the Army’s Black Hawk fleet, he said.
“Filing this protest decision was not made lightly, was reviewed extensively throughout the corporation at the highest levels,” Lemmo said. “We just felt that after receiving the debrief from the Army and spending several days, going back and forth that it was still evident that a protest was warranted. We feel that the data and the discussions lead us to believe that the proposals were not evaluated to deliver the best value in the interest of the Army, the soldiers or the American taxpayer. Given the critical importance of FLRAA and its mission to the Army and out nation, we believe they require the most capable, affordable and lowest-risk solution. We remain convinced that, based on the selection criteria, that Defiant X is the transformational aircraft that ensures Army readiness, defends our nation and our allies and deters rapidly advancing threats.”
The Defiant X design was based on dozens of hours of flight tests by the SB>1 Defiant operational prototype, developed in parallel with Valor during the previous Joint Multirole Technology Demonstration, or JMR-TD, program.
Defiant first flew in March 2019, more than a year after Valor first got off the ground in December 2017. The delay was partly due to developmental issues that included problems with its counter-rotating rigid rotor system. Boeing had trouble scaling up the rigid rotors to lift a 30,000-pound aircraft and had to redesign them before Defiant could fly. It was also briefly grounded in 2019, so the Defiant team could tweak the aircraft’s drive train system to avoid “bearing creep” found during the operation of the ground-based propulsion system test bed, or PTSB.
A subsequent flight test campaign amassed more than 60 hours of flight time, in addition to ground test and hundreds of hours in the PTSB. SB>1 went on to fly at more than 245 knots in level flight, far outpacing conventional helicopters. It achieves those speeds with the help of its coaxial rigid rotors and a pusher propeller.
Aside from that speed milestone, Defiant also:
- Achieved greater than 60-degree banked turns.
- Demonstrated mission-relevant cargo capacity by lifting a 5,300-pound Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System external load.
- Demonstrated Level 1 low-speed agility with fly-by-wire controls.
- Integrated U.S. Army test pilots into the Defiant program.
“We hit close to 250 knots when the requirement was only 230,” Lemmo said. “We continued the program beyond the Army's requirements, and really proved the relevance to the mission. We did a single-engine inoperable flight. ... That's critical. We did a sling load, not just lifting it off the ground and hovering. We took it on a mission. We did landings in a confined area. We took a prototype on a 700-nautical-mile trip to Nashville. We haven't seen many other people fly their prototypes out of their home area, on a road trip like that.”
In October, when The War Zone spoke with Sikorsky representatives at the annual Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., senior test pilot Bill Fell said the SB>1 had recently flown and was prepared to continue its test flight campaign. Lemmo said the campaign was halted in preparation for the Army’s impending downselect, but is ready to resume at a moment’s notice. Following three years of flight test, Bell’s V-280 Valor technology demonstrator was retired from flight in June 2021.
“We were reserving future flights and fully intended to fly the aircraft post-downselect, to continue knocking down risk as you go into the full development program,” Lemmo said. "That is a testament to the longevity and robustness of the Defiant design. As for the future, obviously we'll have to see how the protest plays out and whether or not the aircraft is needed to be flown in support of the FLRAA program. If we decide that there's value in doing so, we can absolutely fly the aircraft.”
FLRAA was a battle between two very different concepts from the get-go. Both designs achieved the Army’s threshold requirements for a Black Hawk replacement but they did so with two wildly divergent airframes. One was an evolutionary improvement on the V-22 Osprey's tiltrotor concept refined into a design based on the Army's unique requirements. The other was the combination of demonstrated but still somewhat new technologies under Sikorsky's X-2 banner that were melded into an up-scaled configuration.
Sikorsky still has a chance for the X2 concept to gain traction with the U.S. Army as it again goes head-to-head against Bell for the Future Attack Recon Aircraft. FARA, as it is commonly called, is a smaller rotorcraft aimed at filling the role, at least in part, vacated by divestment of the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed aerial scout. In practice, the FARA winner will replace AH-64 Apaches that have filled the gap left by the OH-58D. Sikorsky is pitching the Raider X, based on its S-97 Raider, which has a similar configuration as Defiant. For FARA, Bell is offering a conventional single-main-rotor design called the 360 Invictus.
Protests of such big-ticket defense contract awards are not usually successful, and Sikorsky thus far has not given much detail about its formal arguments or desired outcome. Still, the impact to the winner and loser of this contract is so big that a fight over it was alway highly likely.
Lemmo said "we're looking for the GAO to assess our protest, and if it's valid, as we think it is, for the Army to reevaluate the proposals."
Contact the author: Dan@thewarzone.com