WASHINGTON — The Army has selected Bell and Sikorsky to enter into a competitive demonstration and risk reduction effort ahead of the start of the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft, or FLRAA, program of record.
The service is on a tight timeline to field a new long-range assault aircraft by 2030. The CDRR will consist of two phases that will last roughly one year each.
The companies will deliver initial conceptual designs, an assessment of the feasibility of requirements and trade studies using model-based systems engineering. The competition for the program of record will begin in 2022 with a plan to field the first unit equipped in 2030.
Congress added $76 million in funding to the aircraft program’s top line in fiscal 2020 to drive down technical risk and speed up delivery. The money, which Congress approved as part of its FY20 appropriations bill signed into law in December, will fund the CDRR effort.
The Army completed its Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration, or JMR TD, for which Bell and the Sikorsky-Boeing team each built aircraft to help the service understand what is possible for a future aircraft — mainly to replace the UH-60 Black Hawk.
“These agreements are an important milestone for FLRAA,” Patrick Mason, the Army’s aviation program executive officer, said in a statement issued March 16. “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.”
Bell has flown its V-280 Valor tilt-rotor demonstrator for two years in the JMR-TD and has logged more than 160 hours of flight time on the experimental aircraft.
Sikorsky and Boeing’s SB-1 Defiant coaxial demonstrator had a more difficult time getting off the ground due to issues in manufacturing its rotor blades. Its first flight was in March 2019.
Even though Defiant has flown for a significantly reduced amount of time, the Army has determined it has enough data to move forward on its FLRAA program rather than extend the JMR TD to wait for the Sikorsky-Boeing team to log flight time.
Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, who is in charge of the service’s future vertical lift modernization efforts, said last spring that because of the data collected through the JMR TD process as a well as additional studies and modeling, the service now thinks it has enough information to move more quickly into a full and open competition for FLRAA.
Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, the military deputy to the acquisition chief, said in a Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee hearing around the same time that the Army is presenting an acquisition strategy to the Pentagon’s acquisition chief focusing on a nondevelopmental item approach to procuring FLRAA. That route, Ostrowski said, could lead to a competitive downselect by FY22.
The extra funding provided by Congress will give the service the ability to continue to fly and burn down that inherent risk in developing a new helicopter.
“What [that] may do as we hit those gates, is allow us to take what was going to be a primary budget, really a starting budget for the Army in ‘23 and ‘24, and potentially move that selection back to ‘23,” Rugen said recently. “We are not going to go to selection if, number one, we don’t have requirements stable, we don’t have resources stable, and, number two, the technology is not there.”
The Army already has had a robust technology demonstrator program, including an extension, Rugen said, but that type of effort doesn’t garner the same data as a prototype demonstration or a full-up weapon system.
“In the CDRR [competitive demonstration and risk reduction], we’re really trying to develop a weapons system, not the tech demonstrator,” Rugen said. “So we’re trying to take it to the next level.”
The CDRR will assess a laundry list of technologies identified through an Office of the Secretary of Defense-conducted independent technology readiness assessment, which would require additional evaluation to reduce risk, according to Rugen.
Some of these technologies include the powertrain, drivetrain and control laws of the aircraft. “When we look at the software involved in flight controls, we have to really reduce risk there,” Rugen noted.
The CDRR will also allow the Army to work on the integration of its mission systems.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.