The most significant decision for the U.S. military rotorcraft industry in more than 30 years is about to be made in the coming weeks. It has been a decade in the making, but the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) competition is heating up. Industry titans Bell and Lockheed Martin are in a fierce head-to-head battle to replace the venerable H-60 Blackhawk. Amber Smith of RealClear Defense tells readers who has the clear advantage. She writes (abridged):
As the decision deadline for the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) looms closer, the Army has a generational opportunity to select an advanced vertical lift aircraft that’s a true gamer changer for the aviation mission.
Of the two offerings in consideration – Lockheed-Boeing’s DEFIANT X and Bell’s V-280 Valor – without question, DEFIANT X’s increased range, speed, survivability, and maneuverability give Army pilots and ground commanders what’s needed to succeed in multi-domain operations against continuously advancing enemies. But critically, DEFIANT X also gives the capability to accomplish these difficult missions within a constrained budget environment.
Choosing DEFIANT X lets Army avoid reinventing the wheel
DEFIANT X shares physical similarities to the Army’s current workhorse, the UH-60 Black Hawk, an incredibly successful aircraft that’s been combat-proven in multiple conflicts worldwide. Ramp and hanger space for Black Hawks is already “baked in” on Army bases across the globe, and these spaces can be easily repurposed for the DEFIANT X, given its comparable size and rotor diameter.
Similarly, the Black Hawk’s pre-existing maintenance support and training infrastructure – highly transferrable to the DEFIANT – would save Army time and money. Maintainers will be familiar with the existing maintenance support infrastructure. Soldiers and service members who previously trained on Black Hawks will appreciate the recognizable interior and seating space. Critically, pilots training on the DEFIANT X have only to learn the particularities of flying a new helicopter.
Not so with the V-280. With this much larger airframe, they would have to start an extended flight training program to learn to fly a new aircraft – itself both a new fixed-wing and a new tilt rotor aircraft. […]
Bell’s V-280 Valor is a looking glass to the V-22 Osprey – and that’s a bad thing
DEFIANT’s competitor for the FLRAA decision – Bell’s V-280 Valor – is merely a looking glass to the V-22 Osprey, an aircraft that’s been plagued with safety problems and readiness issues for decades.
Like the V-22, the V-280 would almost certainly prove a nightmare for safety, affordability, and maintenance. For example, the Marines have struggled with maintenance and design issues since the V-22’s official entry into military service in 2007, specifically with its problematic tilt rotor design. Catastrophic crashes are all too frequent of an occurrence. Nine Marines have been killed in 2022 alone – four in Norway and five in California. In addition to those deadly crashes, 2022 has seen four other Class A accidents – those “with resulting total cost of property damage of $2,000,000 or more; or an injury and/or occupational illness that results in a fatality or permanent total disability.”
Financially, there is no comparison
The Army must learn from aviation acquisition mistakes of the past. Leaders must be realistic about the budget constrained environment in which they now operate. The reality is the Army cannot afford to build brand new customized maintenance, training, hangar, and ramp infrastructure all over the world that the Bell Valor tilt rotor requires.
These costs are a feature, not a bug, of the V-280. As mechanically complicated as a standard helicopter is, tiltrotors are even worse; more complicated airframes simply cost more to maintain. The V-22 costs close to an estimated $10,000 per flight hour, compared to a cost of $2,000 – $4,000 per flight hour for the mechanically simpler Black Hawk.
With the focus on budget and mission capabilities for the highest likelihood for success, the DEFIANT X is the right choice for the Army. When stakes are this high, the Army needs a game changer, not a modernized version of an Osprey.
DEFIANT X sets the Army up for fiscal responsibility and program success; the V-280 would set the Army up for potential failure, not least due to inability to afford brand-new infrastructure and training requirements.
Even with tight fiscal requirements, our warfighters deserve the best equipment to operate in increasingly challenging environments and accomplish mission requirements – with the DEFIANT X, the Army gets both.
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