Army Approaches Its Biggest Aviation Decision In 60 Years: Whether To Buy Tiltrotors
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Marines boarding an MV-22B Osprey in 2010. Tiltrotor technology has transformed the way in which the Marine Corps conducts operations.
The Association of the United States Army held its annual conference and exposition in the nation’s capital last week. The event was huge and heavily attended, with hundreds of suppliers participating. But it wasn’t hard to figure out who had the biggest exhibit. It was Textron, owner of Bell Helicopter, which brought a full-scale model of a tiltrotor combat aircraft to the event.
Textron isn’t ranked among the Pentagon’s top contractors, but it sees an opportunity in the near future to reach a breakthrough deal with the Army comparable to when it sold thousands of UH-1 ‘Hueys” during the Vietnam War. The Army is seeking to replace all of its current rotorcraft with next-generation aircraft under a joint program called Future Vertical Lift, and Textron thinks its unique tiltrotor technology is what the Army needs.
So Bell/Textron is spending lavishly on telling the tiltrotor story. Not just at conferences, but by building an eye-popping marketing and simulation facility a stone’s throw from the Pentagon. The facility, which takes up an entire floor in a high-rise office building, enables Pentagon executives, military officers, and congressional aides to see how tiltrotor technology could transform the way Army Aviation operates.
Bell/Textron built the world’s first production tiltrotor, the V-22 Osprey, for the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force special operators. After a bumpy start, the program produced the most versatile rotorcraft in the joint fleet due to its ability to take off and land vertically like a helicopter, but then pivot its engines in flight to deliver the range, speed and payload of a fixed-wing aircraft.
Four decades after Bell/Textron first proved that was possible, the Army is the only military service within the defense department that has not embraced tiltrotors. It backed out of the V-22 program in 1988, and since then it has watched the Marines use Osprey to accomplish missions that previously would have been impossible. The legacy Sea Knight helicopters that Osprey replaced could barely reach every part of Iraq’s Anbar Province; Ospreys located at the same base can reach all of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, plus large portions of Iran, Jordan and Turkey.
And they can get where they are going fast – at over 300 miles per hour if necessary. No conventional rotorcraft can do that. Air Force special operators have achieved the same operational gains with their own version of the Osprey. And now the Navy has begun replacing its aged airplanes used for delivering supplies to the fleet with a third variant of the Osprey. Army aviators have been following all this, and no doubt wondering whether their own service should have stuck with the program rather than choosing to pursue conventional helicopters like Black Hawk and Apache.
Tiltrotors aren’t superior to conventional rotorcraft in all regards. The Army wants future scout helicopters small enough to hover in the “urban canyons” of contested cities, and that could be tricky with a tiltrotor because the placement of its engines and rotors gives it a bigger footprint than legacy scouts. But the first step in replacing Army Aviation’s current fleet is to find a successor to those medium-size Black Hawks and Apaches, and there the tiltrotor shines. You can tell senior aviators are intrigued by the possibilities, even if they are wary about the price.
However, to win that prize Bell/Textron will have to overcome formidable opposition from an advanced helicopter being offered by a team of Sikorsky/Lockheed and Boeing. Like Bell/Textron, the Lockheed-Boeing team has developed an all-new rotorcraft for a demonstrator program that will feed into the Future Vertical Lift effort. The Lockheed-Boeing offering is called the SB-1 Defiant. The third-generation tiltrotor Bell/Textron is offering is called the V-280 Valor. Together, they define the state of the art in rotorcraft design.
I should note that all three of these companies contribute to my think tank, and Lockheed Martin is a consulting client. So you could say I don’t have a dog in the fight. Or maybe I have too many dogs in the fight. After talking to senior Army officials about what they expect from the Future Vertical Lift program, I’m convinced that it could signal the biggest shift in how the Army thinks about its aviation assets since the introduction of turbine-engine helicopters in Vietnam 60 years ago.
Not that the Army doesn’t like the helicopters it already has. Black Hawk, made by Sikorsky/Lockheed, is the most widely used utility/transport rotorcraft in the world. Over 4,000 have been built in multiple variants for the Army, Navy, Air Force and numerous allies. Apache remains by far the most capable attack helicopter ever fielded. The Army is spending heavily to add features to both helicopters, which means they will likely remain in the fleet through mid-century.
So why even consider tilt-rotors, or for that matter the fast, quiet Defiant? The reason is that threats are growing at the high end of the conflict spectrum, with countries like Russia and China deploying agile air defenses, sophisticated electronic warfare capabilities, and clever cyber warfare skills. Existing rotorcraft might not be able to survive or fight effectively in places like Eastern Europe if war breaks out there. Like its sister services, the Army needs to match investment plans to the ominous threat landscape laid out in the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy.
This is the kind of environment in which militaries need to rethink their most fundamental assumptions about the future of warfare. And Trump has seen to it that the Army gets the money it requires to fund major departures from past plans.
So Bell/Textron is probably smart to place a big bet on a technology in which it leads the world. On the other hand, Sikorsky/Lockheed and Boeing have spent heavily on making Defiant the most capable combat helicopter ever created, and they have the financial resources to spend more. Future Vertical Lift is shaping up to be the most interesting contractor rivalry in years, with tens of billions of dollars on the table.