After serving in the US Army for nearly three decades, the venerable American H-60 Black Hawk helicopter is set to retire as the assault chopper of the service branch under a multibillion-dollar program called the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA). With the future of Army aviation on the line, everyone has different strong opinions on its incoming successor.
The FLRAA Program
In 2019, the Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation revealed in an unclassified document the technical specifics of the FLRAA project, a part initiative of its Future Vertical Lift. The service looks forward to replacing all its existing helicopters by 2030—including the UH-60 Black Hawk. Accordingly, the Army wants its next-generation aircraft to have a top speed of 250-280 knots (over 285-320 miles per hour) compared to Black Hawk’s sub 200 mph speed performance. It also stated that it requires an unrefueled combat radius of up to 300 nautical miles, with a range threshold of at least 1,725 nmi and possibly up to 2,440 nmi.
Moreover, the Army requires the helicopter to accommodate up to 12 passengers in crash-resistant seats with a carrying capacity of up to 4,000 pounds and external cargo that could lug around 10,000 to 13,100 pounds. If possible, the service branch wants a chopper capable of operating in extreme weather and high-altitude environments without losing power.
The FLRAAs should also have a long-lasting service life, ideally around 50 years, with the help of future upgrades to “increase capability and maintain relevancy” as the technology moves along with time.
Among the manufacturers that bid for the project are Bell and Sirosky-Boeing, submitting their latest ongoing assault aircraft: the V-280 Valor and SB>1 Defiant, respectively.
Black Hawk’s Successor
Both contenders present advantages and disadvantages, and over time have gained fanatics and supporters who hoped to be chosen by the US Army. But in the end, only one of these submissions will be declared victorious, which the service finally unveiled earlier this week—the winner: Bell’s tiltrotor aircraft, the V-280 Valor.
Finally, the US Army has selected @BellFlight’s tiltrotor V-280 #Valor as its #FLRAA platform to eventually replace the UH-60 Black Hawk. Game changing decision for the US rotorcraft industry and transformative for Bell itself… pic.twitter.com/LpAUv7sMly
— Tony Osborne (@Rotorfocus) December 5, 2022
Co-developed by Lockheed Martin, the Valor design first came about in the early 2010s and has been classified as a Category I type of proposal for having to hit the nails the Army was looking for. Bell provided most of the design, while Lockheed Martin was responsible for integrating sophisticated avionics, sensors, and weapons into the aircraft. The V-280 underwent dozens of modifications over the years, allowing the aircraft to evolve and mature—a factor the Army may have considered when selecting it over the SB>1 Defiant.
The Valor also follows most of the specifications the Army requires, including a top speed of up to 280 kn (320 mph), combat range of around 500-800 nmi (580-920 mi), and capability of carrying up to 14 troops with a maximum takeoff weight of approximately 18,078 lbs (8,200 kg). It is powered by two Rolls-Royce AE 1107F turboshafts, which have proven to be a powerful, dependable, and cost-effective engine not only for the V-280 but also for other military aircraft in the American armed forces.
V-280 Might Not Be Fit for Tight Landing
Critics of the tiltrotor aircraft commonly highlight the obvious large footprint of the helo that raises concern about potentially hindering missions, especially if taking place in narrow, tight landing zones. Another thing is whether it could autorotate in an emergency situation. But according to some analysts that closely follow the matter, “None of this really matters if the aircraft can’t even reach a relevant landing zone, to begin with,” —pertaining to the insufficiency of Army aviation in addressing long-range conflicts like in the Pacific. All military aircraft represent trade-offs in armor, performance, range, and other flight characteristics. In this case, the Army is favoring extended range and speed for being able to get into tight landing zones.
Historically, military operations took place in short-range conflict zones such as Europe or the Middle East, never reaching far-flung regions such as the vast Pacific. However, with tensions brewing primarily in that area with North Korea and China, the service branch now considers aircraft with extensive capabilities to be relevant and imperative today. Emphasis on endurance and survivability, which the V-280 possesses compared to its rival, the SB>1 Defiant.
The compound, coaxial rigid-rotor Defiant, on the other hand, is a public favorite, with its design appearing to be more futuristic-looking and chic than the Valor. It is also more compact, though 20 percent taller than Valor, and has almost the same look as Black Hawk. But unlike victor, the Defiant is far less mature in the design concept—at least not yet.
Co-developed by Sikorsky and Boeing in the mid-to-late 2010s, the SB>1 is slated to have a cruise speed of around 250 kn; however, analysts have pointed out that the range would be far lesser since the aircraft still use the older Honeywell T55 turboshaft engines, which powered the CH-47 Chinook. As mentioned, the Defiant features a counter-rotating coaxial main rotor and pusher propeller that, unlike conventional choppers, will generate up to 100 kn speed increase, as well as “about 60 percent combat radius extension and 50 percent better performance in high-hot hover operations.”
A Multi-Billion dollar Contract
Bell has received an initial contract payment of $232 million to fund the continued design and development of the Valor and its virtual prototypes in the coming months. The contract will then be expanded to $1.2 billion, potentially up to $7 billion, to begin the construction of the new fleet that will eventually replace roughly 2,000 Black Hawks.
Army today announced that Bell's V-280 Valor has won its Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) competition. V-280 will be replacing the UH-60 Black Hawk from 2030s
Tilt-rotor is here to stay pic.twitter.com/2QEKOgEzbj
— Fighterman_FFRC (@Fighterman_FFRC) December 6, 2022
Keith Flail, Executive Vice President for Advanced Vertical Lift Systems at Bell, told reporters that “[f]or the past several years the Bell team demonstrated the exceptional operational capabilities, digital thread synergies, and platform affordability enhancements the V-280 provides.”
The Army’s decision to select the V-280 as the replacement for Black Hawk certainly spurred protests and debates, despite the service’s thorough and lengthy decision-making, in addition to hundreds of flight tests to support the design and development. Once the Government Accountability Office has reviewed the proposal and everything else goes to plan, the first batch of FLRAA prototypes will see the light of day by 2025.