A U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter takes off from Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan in 2011.

A U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter takes off from Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan in 2011. U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht

The Army Picked a Black Hawk Replacement — But the Fight May Have Just Begun

Sikorsky and Boeing are protesting the service choosing a Bell-made tiltrotor, and lawmakers are angry.

Lawmakers are demanding answers as non-partisan auditors review a U.S. Army decision to replace its Black Hawk helicopter with a new tiltrotor design.

The prize: a decade of orders for the service’s utility aircraft of the future, with more than $70 billion set to flow to the prime contractor, its hundreds of suppliers, and their thousands of workers.

In December, the Army chose Textron’s Bell V-280, which can hover like a helicopter and fly like a fixed-wing plane. That incensed lawmakers in Connecticut, home to Lockheed Martin-owned Sikorsky. The maker of the venerable Black Hawk teamed with Boeing to pitch the Defiant X, a new-design helicopter whose stacked rotors and “pusher prop” enable it to fly much faster than the Black Hawk.

Right now, the public doesn’t know why the Army chose the V-280 over the Defiant X in its Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft, or FLRAA. It’s common practice for the military not to say while losing bidders challenge the decision, which Sikorsky and Boeing did in late December.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has until April to decide whether the contract was awarded fairly, whether bids should be re-evaluated, or a different course of action should be taken.

That puts the project on hold. But it hasn’t stopped ticked-off lawmakers from making their opinions known.

“Despite our delegation’s repeated requests, the Army unreasonably & irresponsibly has refused to provide us—or the public—with any information about why Sikorsky’s bid to build Future Long Range Assault Aircraft was rejected,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., tweeted Thursday.

“FYI yesterday the Army denied Congress's request for a briefing - for the 4th time,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “Is this because the price of the Bell helicopter is sky high compared to the Sikorsky bid? Why doesn't the Army want Congress to know this?”

Last week, Doug Bush, the Army’s top acquisition official, said the service built time for a protest into the project’s schedule.

“The Army's confident, but you know, GAO will do its job and we'll go from there,” he said.

But if the pro-Sikorsky-Boeing lawmakers choose, they could push for Congressional hearings or limit the project’s funding, which could ultimately delay the Black Hawk replacement. Or if any of the companies don’t like GAO’s recommendations, they could take their battle to court.

The Army briefed Sikorsky and Boeing about its decision in mid-December. This week, an industry source spoke about what the losing team considers flaws in the service’s acquisition process. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail the company’s concerns, said the Army was too subjective and inconsistent.

Sikorsky contends that its smaller Defiant X would be cheaper to operate and would not require the Army to pay to improve airfields to accommodate Bell’s larger aircraft.

“Sikorsky’s whole idea was to mimic what the Army does [now] to drive down the cost, to leverage the supply chain, to leverage the supply base, and give them something that's affordable,” the source said.

They say their helicopter would also be cheaper to maintain over the long-term,

“​When you make something transformational, make it fit into that footprint the absolute best you can,” the source said.

They argue that pilots of the V-280 tiltrotor would need more training than regular helicopter pilots since they would have to learn how to fly fixed-wing planes, helicopters, and tiltrotors, like new Marine Corps V-22 Osprey pilots. 

But another industry source said new and more realistic flight simulators could reduce that timeline and price tag by allowing training to be done more cheaply on the ground. This second source, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said a so-called compound helicopter like the Defiant X also uses new technology that would require Army pilots to get, at least some, specialized training as well.

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Sikorsky and Boeing pitched a helicopter with compound rotors, which do away with the need for a tail rotor. The tail rotor was replaced by a pusher prop that allows the helicopter to fly at the high speeds the Army desires. The Bell V-280 is a tiltrotor, an aircraft with a fixed-wing with movable rotors on the tips that allow it to take off and land like a helicopter, but fly fast like a traditional plane.

“You have two different technologies that you’re trying to compare,” the first source said.

Because of that, the source said, the Army used subjective criteria.

“The criteria were applied subjectively, and we felt they were not applied consistently,” the source said.

The company is pushing for the Army to reevaluate the bids with less subjective criteria, the source said. They say the hypothetical mission that Army officials evaluated was not representative of the types of missions flown by Army pilots.

The source noted that Lockheed Martin rarely protests procurement decisions. The company believes the Army’s decision didn’t give “the best value to the Army to the taxpayer, for a lot of reasons.”

Both Sikorsky and Bell have a lot to lose. Sikorsky makes the Black Hawk, a helicopter used by dozens of militaries around the world. 

“Sikorsky is the incumbent manufacturer for the Army's utility transport role as is the Black Hawk manufacturer,” said Ray Jaworowski, an analyst with Forecast International. “Losing what's essentially the eventual Black Hawk replacement is certainly a blow to the company.”

The Army plans to continue flying that helicopter well into the next decade and allies are still likely 

“They'll still be building Black Hawks for the Army, at least into the late 2020s, maybe even into the early 2030s,” Jaworowski said. “Beyond that, they'll still be building Black Hawks for export customers.”

While Sikorsky also makes CH-53 heavy-lift helicopters for the Marine Corps, smaller Black Hawk orders could lead Sikorsky to shrink its workforce.

“The Army’s FLRAA decision puts the defense industrial base at great risk by essentially scrapping decades of vertical flight experience,” wrote Rocco Calo, principal officer of Teamsters Local 1150, the union that represents Sikorsky workers. “This stagnates helicopter development in the defense industry for the next 40-plus years, because these Teamster workers ARE the industrial base.”

The Army files more than 2,000 Black Hawks. Sikorsky has built more than 5,000 over four-plus decades for the U.S. military and 35 allies.

“If the selection of the V-280 stands…the export market likely becomes increasingly important to them [and] they'll have to reorient their product line a bit,” Jaworowski said.

But the Defiant X isn’t necessarily dead even if GAO upholds the Army’s choice of the V-280. Jaworowski said it could become an attractive option for U.S. allies, especially in Europe, where NATO is eyeing what it calls the Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability in the mid-to-late 2030s. 

“It's likely they'll probably go to the European platform, but you could definitely see a teaming opportunity there for Sikorsky [and Boeing] to get involved…with technology from the Defiant X,” he said. 

Bell is in a similar situation. It is expected to wrap production of the V-22 Osprey, a larger tiltrotor used by the Marine Corps and the Air Force, in the coming years. To date, Japan is the only foreign buyer of the V-22. That means without the new Army V-280 orders, the future of Bell’s military business would be in question.

“I would think the export opportunities would certainly be more numerous for the V-280 as the winner of the FLRAA program than they were for the V-22,” Jaworowski said.

Sikorsky and Bell are also competing to build the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, a scout helicopter that would replace Bell’s OH-58 Kiowa, which the Army no longer flies. The service is expected to choose later this decade. The Army is expected to buy fewer aircraft for this compared to FLRAA.