The Army’s Reagan-era UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter has been a reliable aircraft for several decades.
Whether it was in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere, the Black Hawk is roundly considered to be the “workhorse” of Army Aviation.
For nearly half a century it has served remarkably as the primary medium lift, multi-role helicopter for the US Army.
But the time has come to move on — Bell Textron’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor and the Sikorsky-Boeing Defiant X compound helicopter will advance to the next and final phase of the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) selection program.
It goes without saying, the stakes are massive.
The Army might not replace all of the more than 2,100 Black Hawks currently in service doing mostly troop transport, air assault, and medical transit, but the service is expected to purchase at least 700 of the winning design at an estimated sticker price of more than $50 million apiece.
Add in development costs and the program will run at least US$40 billion.
So when a Marine Corps Boeing V-22 Osprey test pilot comes out and says tiltrotors are not a good fit for the Army, people sit up and listen.
Scott Trail says that based on his first-hand experience in the Marine Corps, the compound helicopter is the clear choice when it comes to choosing the configuration that best supports the Army’s mission and minimizes costs.
In a special report published by Breaking Defense, Trail says while tiltrotors offer superior high-altitude cruise performance, that’s less relevant to future high-intensity warfare where Army aircraft will have to stay low to avoid advanced anti-aircraft defenses.
Also, the compound helicopter is more agile at low altitude, hovers better at high altitudes in hot weather, and can maintain tighter formations.
More importantly, the training and military construction costs to switch from the H-60 to a compound helicopter will be much lower than the transition costs for a tiltrotor, Breaking Defense reported.
Key characteristics of the long-range assault mission are the ability to fly fast at altitudes below 200 feet, then mass on the objective to deliver combat power.
Landing on the objective quickly is critical to maintain the element of surprise and overwhelm enemy forces.
The Marines already have a long-range assault platform in the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor.
You could reason that the Army may follow the Marine Corps’ decision and leverage their tiltrotor experience. However, the Marines and the Army have different missions, Breaking Defense reported.
The tiltrotor configuration is in line with the Marine’s vision statement to, “fight and win our nation’s battles… respond quickly to the complex spectrum of crises and conflicts, and gain access or prosecute forcible entry operations.” (emphasis added)
Winning battles, responding to crises and prosecuting forcible entry requires an aircraft that flies far and fast, especially in the vast Pacific.
The Army’s FLRAA supports a different mission.
The Army’s mission is: “To … win our nation’s wars … indefinitely seizing and controlling those things the adversary needs most…” (emphasis added)
Winning wars and indefinitely seizing and controlling resources requires the ability to rapidly buildup combat forces and sustain operations, where tight formations and hover performance are critical capabilities.
It is in these areas that the compound helicopter excels, Breaking Defense reported.
Both of these missions will be required to prevail in the Asia-Pacific region — in the end, it’s all about China.
To avoid China’s sophisticated air defenses, assault aircraft must fly low to avoid detection. Flying low prevents the V-280 from cruising at high altitude and decreases its advantage in fuel consumption over the Defiant X compound helicopter.
In airplane mode, the low acoustic signature of the V-280 is an advantage. But, as the tiltrotor transitions for landing, it is “loud as hell” according to a report by The War Zone.
And historically, the way ground troops get warning of incoming helicopters is by hearing them – which means louder aircraft give the enemy more time to prepare and even shoot them down.
And then there is the cost.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that between 450 to 900 FLRAA could be purchased at a cost of US$23.8-$47.6 billion, Breaking Defense reported.
It is likely the Army will need more FLRAA to replace the current H-60 fleet of 2,279 helicopters. With this number of new aircraft required, even a relatively small sustainment cost increase on a per aircraft basis will result in substantially increased budget requirements.
To ensure a successful program, such costs must be weighed heavily, and the costs to transition from the H-60 to one of the two FLRAA options will likely be dramatically different.
The best way to limit that “switching cost” is to choose a configuration that is most similar to the H-60’s training and infrastructure needs, Breaking Defense reported.
Finally, due to the unique flying characteristics of the V-280, the Army will need to train its pilots to fly three different aircraft: the way the Marines train V-22 pilots today: first a helicopter, then a fixed-wing airplane, and only then a tiltrotor.
On this model, in addition to the 32 weeks of Army helicopter instruction, tiltrotor pilots will require 20 weeks of multi-engine training and 20 weeks of simulator and in-flight tiltrotor training, almost a year-and-a-half of training to fly the tiltrotor.
This training burden requires additional aircraft, instructors, infrastructure and military construction. While compound specific training will be required, it will certainly be less than tiltrotor training and will negate the need for multi-engine training.
According to Trail, when it comes to the configuration that best supports the Army’s mission while minimizing life cycle costs, the Defiant X performs best where it matters most.
Expect a strong response from Bell Textron.
Scott Trail is a retired Marine CH-46E helicopter pilot, V-22 developmental test pilot, and a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.