The race is on to build the U.S. Army's new super-helicopter -- and competition is heating up.
As of March, four companies, and teams of companies, had submitted proposals to the Army to build a new "Future Vertical Lift," or FVL, aircraft to replace the hodgepodge of Kiowa scout helicopters, Black Hawk and Chinook transports, and Apache attack helos that currently carry soldiers into battle, and support ground troops once they're there. What aircraft will be chosen to replace them, though, remains to be seen.
Privately held, Benbrook, Texas-based AVX Aircraft has developed a helicopter lifted by coaxial rotors up top, but boosted by twin ducted fans, as its offering.
Europe's EADS (OTC:EADSY) is submitting a design based on its Eurocopter X3 demonstrator aircraft, featuring a five-bladed top rotor and two short wings outfitted with propellers.
A partnership between Boeing (NYSE:BA) and United Technologies' (NYSE:RTX) Sikorsky -- the incumbent operators, whose Apaches and Black Hawks currently comprise 80% of the Army's aircraft -- have a demo craft they call the X2, which, like its rivals, features both rotors up top and a push-propeller at rear to help boost flight speed.
Meanwhile, Textron (NYSE:TXT) -- which in combination with Boeing built the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft that's so popular with the U.S. Marines and special operations troops -- is working up a third-generation tiltrotor that it calls the V-280 Valor. But apparently jilted by Boeing, Textron decided last week to ally with Boeing's archrival in military aircraft, and added Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) to its team.
Lockheed Martin? Really?
While Lockheed Martin might be best known for building supersonic stealth fighters, rather than humdrum helos, the fact is that the company has a lot of expertise in building the innards of combat helicopters. In fact, just last month Lockheed announced that it had worked up an integrated package of helicopter technology suitable for use in all variants of the new FVL aircraft, and featuring "advanced avionics, sensors, and weapons ... that can be applied across multiple platforms."
Apparently, Textron likes Lockheed's tech and is gambling on its success in winning both of the last two major Pentagon fighter jet projects -- the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II -- to help Textron beat Boeing in the FVL contest.
What it will take to win
Winning won't be easy, because the Army has some pretty lofty requirements for its next-generation helicopter. As compared with medium-lift helos such as the Apache and Black Hawk, the Army wants the FVL to:
- Fly faster (twice as fast as a Black Hawk would be great).
- Fly farther (again, a nice, round 100% increase should suffice).
- Lug around a good-sized payload on its flights (say, a dozen fully combat-loaded infantrymen).
- Carry its payload to higher altitudes (such as are common in mountainous, Middle Eastern countries such as, say, Afghanistan) and in hotter temperatures (likewise).
Textron thinks it's found a useful ally in Lockheed Martin, and it has the aircraft to fill this bill. Then again, so do Textron/Lockheed's competitors, one has to presume.
What happens next
If all goes as planned, the U.S. Army plans this very month to pick two out of the four teams competing on FVL and have them build prototypes of their respective aircraft for evaluation. The Army will then test-fly these craft from 2017 and 2019, with the aim of picking one final winner. Fifteen years later, in 2034, the Army thinks it will be ready to start putting these helos into operation.
That sounds like a long way off -- but winning this contract should be worth the wait. The Army alone has more than 2,000 Black Hawks and Apaches in its arsenal, and a couple thousand more helos of other types -- and that's just one of the four branches of the military that will eventually be replacing their aircraft with whatever emerges from FVL. Billions of Pentagon dollars could be at stake as the aircraft goes through development, and tens of billions of dollars once it goes into production.
Who will win all these dollars?