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Battle brewing to build the U.S. Army's next rotary wing aircraft


An artist's conception of V-280 Valors supporting a tank battle. (Photo: Bell Helicopter)

The U.S. Army is hosting a fly-off starting a year from now, and some of the biggest names in defense manufacturing are working in earnest to win it.

The Army put out a "request for proposals," better know in procurement circles as an "RFP," last year as the first step in their Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMRTD) program, and the competition is down to two efforts: The V-280 "Valor" by Bell Helicopter and the SB-1 "Defiant" by Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. The two designs take wildly different approaches to meet the JMRTD performance requirements that include the ability to reach an airspeed of 230 knots and fly a combat radius of around 275 miles. The Valor is a tiltrotor aircraft, which builds on Bell's experience and learnings with the V-22 "Osprey," and the Defiant is a coaxial rotor design, which uses two rotors spinning in opposite directions above the fuselage and a thruster aft.

The two designs take wildly different approaches to meet the JMRTD performance requirements that include the ability to reach an airspeed of 230 knots and fly a combat radius of around 275 miles. The Valor is a tiltrotor aircraft, which builds on Bell's experience and learnings with the V-22 "Osprey," and the Defiant is a coaxial rotor design, which uses two rotors spinning in opposite directions above the fuselage and a thruster aft.

"We realize there's still a pretty significant filter out there about the troubled history of the tiltrotor," said Robert Hastings, Bell's EVP for communications and government affairs . "But the Marines today would tell you it's transformational. Younger pilots who never had to unlearn bad habits from other airplanes are flying the V-22 in ways we never imagined."

Hastings, who flew Cobras and Blackhawks in the Army and also served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs during Robert Gates' tenure at the Pentagon, related a conversation he had with a V-22 squadron commander during the most recent Singapore Air Show. The CO told him that at that moment he had Ospreys in Australia, Okinawa, and the Philippines as well as at the show.

"He was a lieutenant colonel with an operational sphere of influence as big as what an admiral had a generation ago," Hastings said. "To quote Gen. Davis, the Marine Corps' assistant commandant for aviation: 'The V-22 has not only changed the way we operate; it changed the way the enemy worries about us.'"

But while Hastings readily lists the V-22's successes in the nation's most recent conflicts, including how the CV variant has been used by the Air Force Special Operations Command, he is quick to point out that the V-280 is what he called a "clean sheet design."

"The V-22 is largely a 1980s product," he said. "Manufacturing is different today."

The first Valor on the assembly line in Amarillo. (Photo: Bell Helicopter)

Hastings explained digital designs along with more precise machining allows parts "to slip into place very nicely" instead of having to be sanded down and otherwise manipulated by technicians along the assembly line as they had to while making the Osprey. With these sorts of improvements, Bell is striving to make the V-280 cost half of the V-22's $71 million unit flyaway cost.

Bell has partnered with Lockheed-Martin to give the Valor a state-of-the-art cockpit suite, building on what engineers and test pilots have learned during the development of the F-35. While there's no plan for helmet visor symbology (which has been a challenge to develop during F-35 testing), Hastings said the cockpit's "open architecture" could afford V-280 pilots that capability in the future. The cockpit also accommodates a wide array of sensors and mission packages, which are designed to give the Valor a lot of combat agility.

Bell is calling their JMRTD candidate a "third generation" tiltrotor. (V-22 is second generation.) The V-280 differs from its predecessor in a number of ways: It's much lighter because it's constructed entirely of carbon-based materials. It has a straight wing instead of the Osprey's forward-swept wing. It has a side door instead of an aft ramp.

Hastings also pointed out that -- with an internal fuel cell added in the cabin area -- the Valor can fly 2,100 miles, which will give the Army a self-deploy capability it's never had before.

Artist's conception of a section of Valors ingressing during a mission. (Courtesy of Bell Helicopter)

"Imagine a future where the 82nd Airborne is told to deploy, and the aviation division commander says to his aviation unit commander, 'Meet me at the Horn of Africa in three days,'" Hastings said. "He doesn't have to worry about a third of his strategic lift assets being tied up by those helicopters."

The JMRTD fly off program will last two years, and at the end of it the Army will pick one of the two airplanes to replace its force of 2,000 Blackhawks and 800 Apaches. (And Hastings pointed out that the utility and attack variants of the Valor have 85 percent commonality beneath the prop-rotor -- another cost-saving feature, he said.) The Army wants the new airplanes ready for war by 2029.

"We believe that helicopters will be around forever," Hastings said, "but we think helicopters have reached as far as you can expand them. We think tiltrotors have a ton of growth in terms of what you can do with them."

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