Black Hawk Replacement Program Enters New Phase (UPDATED)
The Army is set to award new contracts to advance its helicopter technology as it pursues a replacement for its aging Black Hawk.
The future long-range assault aircraft, also known as FLRAA, is being spearheaded by the Army’s future vertical lift cross-functional team as part of the service’s recently stood up Futures Command. Vertical lift is one of the Army’s top three major modernization efforts.
Requirements for FLRAA are being informed by a precursor effort known as the joint multi-role technology demonstrator, or JMR-TD, which saw Bell and a Sikorsky-Boeing team develop two new aircraft, the V-280 Valor and the SB-1 Defiant, respectively.
“The technologies matured and demonstrated under JMR-TD, combined with numerous other Army efforts, informed the basis for the future long-range assault aircraft requirements,” said Col. David Phillips, project manager for FLRAA at program executive office aviation.
In September the office released a request for white papers via the Aviation and Missile Technology Consortium for a risk reduction effort. The competitive demonstration and risk reduction phase will result in the downselect of two companies to “complete requirements derivation, trade-off analysis and preliminary conceptual design work to help inform the Army on requirements, acquisition strategy and program processes ahead of the FLRAA program of record,” Phillips said.
Awards for the competitive demonstration and risk reduction phase are expected in March, and the Army plans to compete the FLRAA contract for a program of record in fiscal year 2022.
The aircraft is expected to provide the service with a significant advancement in operational capability, Phillips said in an email. That includes improved reliability, availability and maintainability; enhanced survivability, maneuverability and connectivity; and increased reach such as range, speed and endurance.
The service is still mulling over the Army acquisition objective for the program as it works to balance effectiveness with affordability. It wants to deliver the first system to warfighters in fiscal year 2030. That is a challenging benchmark, but it is achievable, Phillips said.
“The Army deliberately funded several FLRAA risk reduction efforts to ensure the Army has a full understanding of the risks, mitigation plans in place and effective tools to accelerate the FLRAA program,” he said.
That includes the joint multi-role technology demonstrator and the competitive demonstration and risk reduction effort, he added. Both of those provide a comprehensive approach to reducing risk ahead of the FLRAA program of record to meet a first unit equipped in fiscal year 2030.
To drive down cost, the office is addressing lifecycle affordability, sustainability and maintainability early in the program, Phillips said.
“The FLRAA program is employing multiple strategies including … cost reduction opportunities, use of a digital thread from design through sustainment and stochastic sustainment modeling,” he said.
Congress recently approved an additional $75 million in the fiscal year 2020 budget for the program, Phillips noted. That money will support the acceleration of the FLRAA schedule, specifically funding a portion of the competitive demonstration and risk reduction effort for two industry partners.
For fiscal year 2021, the Army requested more than $1 billion in research, development, test and evaluation funding for its future vertical lift modernization effort, which includes FLRAA.
Bell has flown the Valor since 2017 and racked up 160 flight hours and 300 operating hours on the aircraft, said Ryan Ehinger, the V-280’s program manager.
Bell completed key performance parameters and objectives for the program — such as reaching speeds of more than 300 knots and high-hot hover performance — in the first quarter of 2019, he noted.
Additionally, the company “demonstrated our low-speed agility using engineering maneuvers at low speed for pitch, roll and yaw, and correlating all of that activity to our models and our analysis so we can then ensure that those match very well with the aircraft performance,” he said.
The next phase focused on demonstrating operational maneuvers and capabilities, including exploration of fast-rope deployments, Ehinger said. It also performed flight tests with open doors to ensure there was no improper air behavior in the open cabin.
Most recently, Bell turned its attention to autonomy testing. “That’s been high on the government’s wish list and that’s something they’ve been talking about as a future capability that they need to have,” he said.
There is a variety of ways autonomy can be incorporated into the platform, including enabling the pilot and co-pilot to perform mission planning tasks while they are en route to an objective. If they need to change plans mid-mission, the technology could allow the aircraft to fly itself and free up time for the pilots to complete other planning activities, he explained.
“It’s really about giving options to the Army customer as to how they want to incorporate that capability,” Ehinger said.
Bell began testing the initial autonomy capability from a software standpoint in early December. On Dec. 18 — the second anniversary of the V-280’s first flight — the company installed what it calls an autonomy guidance computer that controls the autonomous functionality and guides the aircraft.
“Over the course of two sorties, with safety pilots on board, we were able to demonstrate all the elements of … autonomous flight to include takeoff, transition into cruise mode, cruise mode at 180 knots-plus, loitering conversion back into [vertical take-off and landing] mode, precision hover and then automated landing,” he said.
The flight was the last time Bell has flown the aircraft in autonomous mode, he added.
Meanwhile, as of February the Sikorsky-Boeing team had racked up more than 28 hours of operating time on the Defiant, including 11.5 flight hours and nearly 17 ground-run hours, according to Melissa Chadwick, a spokesperson for Sikorsky. Additionally, Defiant’s propulsion system test bed — which is a near replica of the platform that is ground-based and meant to reduce technical risk — has reached nearly 90 hours of operation.
During a recent demonstration in West Palm Beach, Florida, the aircraft reached 140 knots, which also included 45-degree angle of bank turns at 125 knots.
Part of the reason for the platform’s fewer flight hours was because of a technical issue caused by a phenomenon known as “bearing creep” in a joint within the gearbox of the propulsion system test bed, said Ken Eland, Boeing’s director and program manager for the future long-range assault aircraft program, during an industry conference in October.
“It’s not related to our technology [and] it’s not an unknown phenomenon in the industry — there’s other rotorcraft programs that have experienced it as well,” he said during a briefing with reporters. “We were uncomfortable with proceeding for very long with that joint behaving the way that it was inside the transmission, so we made a slight design modification to better control that joint.”
The bearing creep — which causes slippage between fitting services — was discovered after a planned disassembly of the propulsion system test bed following three flights last spring to thoroughly examine its components, he noted.
Randy Rotte, Boeing’s director of global sales and marketing for cargo and future vertical lift, said the company had tough choices to make following the discovery.
“We were faced with: do we do a quick band-aid fix that will get us to the next test point, or do we do a more longer-term adjustment that supports that longer program?”
The company chose to make the modifications quickly — which included not only the power system test bed, but also the Defiant and a model used in wind tunnel testing.
Eland noted that by making the fix sooner rather than later, it resulted in a schedule delay of less than half of what it would have been if the companies had waited.
The Defiant resumed flying in September in West Palm Beach, Florida, he said.
Despite the Valor having flown substantially more than the Defiant, Bell does not necessarily have a leg up in the FLRAA competition, said Ryan McCarthy, secretary of the Army.
“Because one competitor has more hours versus another, you’re going to evaluate the design and how all of them are performing,” he told reporters in January at the Brookings Institution.
“Hours on a prototype is one variable in a massive equation to making that decision because ultimately the design of a helicopter … is going to show you how much capability that you could really hang on this weapon system and meet your outcomes.”
However, McCarthy stressed that it is important for industry to move quickly given the complex security environment the United States finds itself in.
“We are trying to encourage business to invest and move quickly because time is the greatest commodity in life,” he said. “Time is not something we can get back. Time is not something that we can negotiate. … We don’t have the time or luxury to wait for people.”
Ray Jaworowski, senior aerospace analyst at Forecast International, a Newtown, Connecticut-based marketing consulting firm, said Bell having more test data could be something of an advantage, but not enough to guarantee a win.
“As you progress farther down the road — and particularly when you consider that the designs will have to be revised somewhat to match the FLRAA requirements — I think it will probably even out somewhat as time goes by,” he said.
Meanwhile, Jaworowski noted that there is energy behind the program, with the defense industry pushing the Army to accelerate the effort.
“Any new-start effort like this is vulnerable to at least some extent the budgetary constraints, when a lot depends on what happens with fiscal pressures — particularly if the economy enters a recession at some point in the next year or two,” he said. “On the other hand, there is considerable momentum” for FLRAA, as well as the future attack reconnaissance aircraft, which is another FVL effort the Army is spearheading.
FLRAA was originally slated to be delivered in 2034, but that has been pushed forward to 2030. Likewise, FARA was scheduled for 2030 and has now moved to the left to 2028, he noted.
Andrew Hunter, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group, said the Army budgeted enough money to complete initial design prototyping efforts with two competitors and will downselect this year. However, there wasn’t money in the fiscal year 2020 budget to proceed with development and procurement of FLRAA in the succeeding years.
In order for the helicopter to be fully budgeted there will need to be some tradeoffs.
“The logical ways that that can happen is the size of the aviation portfolio could be increased, but that would require the Army deciding to trade off ... one of its priorities,” Hunter said. “The other logical way to do it would be to trim back production on existing production lines in order to increase funding to be available for the research-and-development effort on FLRAA.”
The most likely outcome is that it will be funded by reducing production rates on some of PEO aviation’s existing aircraft, though Hunter did not share which he thought may be most at risk of being trimmed back.
While the Army has had high profile acquisition failures in the past, Hunter said the 2030 benchmark for FLRAA is reasonable.
“The reality is that the demonstrators aren’t ready to go to war,” he said. However, the JMR-TD effort has “created the proper environment around the idea that these programs are real and that they don’t have unrealistic expectations of what the technology can do or how quickly it can be developed.”
Update: This story has been updated to reflect new Defiant milestones.