The United States Army’s Black Hawk helicopters have been the workhorse of the service for decades, but this month it was announced that Textron’s Bell has won the competition to build the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA). It will be the Army’s largest helicopter procurement in 40 years, and it will see the eventual replacement of the 2,000 Black Hawks now in operation.

The Bell V-280 Valor beat out the SB-1 Defiant-X, which was designed by Sikorsky and Boeing, in a contract worth a reported $1.3 billion. The service had called for a helicopter that could travel roughly 2,440 nautical miles (2,810 miles) without refueling, yet still be agile enough to maneuver troops into dangerous hot spots around the globe, Defense News reported.

Big Program

The FLRAA has been seen as a significant program for the Army, and much greater than the initial $1.3 billion. In fact, the engineering and manufacturing development and low-rate production phase could be worth roughly $7 billion, and if the “full complement” of aircraft is eventually procured across the entire life of the fleet, the FLRAA program could be worth in the range of $70 billion including potential foreign military sales.

It is easy to see why some politicians in Connecticut – home to Sikorsky – have questioned the Army’s decision to choose the V-280 Valor over the Defiant-X.

“After some contract awards, particularly large ticket items such as the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) competition, the decision is followed by public discussion and critique of the outcome,” explained Harry Boneham, an analyst for aerospace, defense, and security at international analytics firm Global Data.

“However, in this case, it could be argued that such an inquiry is unjustified,” Boneham told ClearanceJobs. “The victor, Textron Bell’s V-280 Valor, has ultimately performed better during the three-year-long flight-testing process than its competitor, Sikorsky-Boeing’s SB-1 Defiant X.”

Boneham noted that the Defiant X achieved a top sustained speed of 247 knots (284 mph) during testing, in comparison to the Valor which achieved a speed of 300 knots (345 mph). The Army had set the minimum speed requirement for the FLRAA program at 250 knots (290 mph), while set the desired maximum continuous cruise speed at 280 knots (320 mph).

“Whilst the Defiant X barely met the minimum requirement, the Valor exceeded the desired threshold,” Boneham continued. “The pattern is similar in terms of test flight hours. The Valor, leveraging concepts and hardware development from the mid-2000s, produced a demonstrator in short order and was able to accumulate over 214 hours of test flights. The Defiant X, however, was delayed by manufacturing issues and was flown for around 64 hours. Ultimately the Valor was able to demonstrate that it exceeded requirements for longer, and so the award cannot be seen as surprising.”

Factors for the Valor Win

The fact that the tilt-rotor Valor won, also indicates that the U.S. regards China as its primary adversary going forward. The Defiant X’s more traditional design likely was a consideration.

“The combination of range, speed, and agility will allow it to island hop,” Boneham noted. “The aircraft will be able to rapidly convey forces over large distances and land without the requirement of a runway. Furthermore, the V-280 boasts a fixed engine nacelle design which will allow for easier sustainability. This will reduce the supply chain requirements for an operation in the Pacific, granting commanders greater flexibility.”

Some lawmakers from the Nutmeg State may not agree with the decision, but it could be the right aircraft for the U.S. Army’s future war strategy. Yet, another issue is that tilt-rotor aircraft have had a few problems.

The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey has attracted criticism over the years for its relatively high crash rate.

“The perceived unreliability of a tilt-rotor design could represent a risk in the US Army selection of the V-280, especially given the central role the platform is expected to fulfill in the helicopter fleet,” said Boneham. “The V-280 will replace the UH-60 Black Hawk and comprise a large portion of the US Army’s assault and utility helicopter numbers.”

Thus the selling points of the V-280 are its speed and range, which would be well suited for “island-hopping” in the Pacific, while the counterpoint to this argument is that a large tactical burden is being placed on the V-280. If the platform suffers from the same issues as previous tilt-rotor platforms, this would impact tactical efficiency, warned Boneham.

For that reason it is unlikely the Defiant X might find other buyers.

“The most significant requirement driver addressed ‘tyranny of distance’ or tactical force projection,” suggested Robert Beuerlein, principal consultant for aerospace, defense, and security at analyst firm Frost & Sullivan.

“Outside of NATO or addressing potential conflict with China, I’m not sure a similar functional requirement exists. The most important question to me is, could it be profitable at a lower volume? If the answer is yes, you would expect to see it on the market,” Beuerlein told ClearanceJobs

Failure to Lift Off?

It is possible that there could be a formal challenge to the U.S. Army’s decision. In 2007, Sikorsky successfully protested a contract awarded to Boeing to build a fleet of rescue helicopters for the U.S. Air Force – while Sikorsky fell short for a separate contract that it lost to Boeing and Leonardo in 2018.

There are two avenues those companies that failed to win a contract can take. The first is with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which hears cases involving monetary claims against the federal government; while the other is the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which serves as the watchdog arm of Congress to sniff out wasteful spending by agencies.

Such protests are actually common, and in its annual tally, GAO had logged nearly 1,600 disputes in the 2022 fiscal year ending in October. GAO decisions are nonbinding, but the federal agencies typically accommodate recommendations; while decisions by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims carry the weight of the federal judiciary, and agencies have no choice but to comply or open a docket in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

It isn’t clear if Sikorsky-Boeing will thus lead to a protest – even if Pentagon in essence deviated from the vision of a common aircraft with the FLRAA award.

“Boeing may have standing, but based on the outcome of the competition results briefing to the losing side, we won’t know for sure,” said Beuerlein.

FARA has a different mission profile, and some analysts believe Sikorsky’s Raider X may be advantageous there.

“That could temper any propensity for a protest,” Beuerlein continued.

“It is not all bad news for the Sikorsky-Boeing effort,” explained Boneham. “Technology developed for the FLRAA contest can now be leveraged and applied to a highly competitive FARA program. It is likely that Lockheed Martin and Boeing will make a consorted effort to win this following the V-280 award.”

In other words, there is always next time.


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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.