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US Army triggers competition for future long-range assault aircraft

by Jen Judson via DefenseNews

Lockheed Martin and Boeing unveiled their offering to the U.S. Army’s future long-range assault aircraft competition on Jan. 25, 2021, calling it Defiant X. (Artist rendering courtesy of Lockheed Martin and Boeing)

The U.S. Army has launched its future long-range assault aircraft competition, quietly releasing a request for proposals limited to two industry teams. The service has also homed in on a schedule to deliver FLRAA prototypes after debating two different options to stay on schedule.

The service weighed the option of pursuing both prototype builds for the airframe and the weapons systems at the same time, or on slightly separate schedules, which would have meant the difference between delivering full prototypes to the Army by the spring or the summer of 2025.

The Army will choose a winner — after a faceoff between Textron’s Bell and a Sikorsky-Boeing team — in the third quarter of fiscal 2022. It appears the service is requiring prototype delivery to start in the third quarter of FY25 and wrap up a year later, according to a review of FY22 budget documents.

The FY21 budget justification documents had FLRAA prototype deliveries scheduled for the second quarter of FY25.

It is unclear whether two separate preliminary design reviews will occur for the airframe and the weapons systems, or if they will be done concurrently. The Army scheduled a preliminary and detailed design review to take place from the third quarter of FY22 to the second quarter of FY24, but that timeline is not broken down further in the FY22 budget documents.

The FY21 documents specifically lay out the preliminary design review, which was expected to begin in the second quarter of FY22 and wrap up in the fourth quarter of FY23. A detailed design review would begin directly following and run until the first quarter of FY25.

Based on the changes, it appears the Army will wrap up all its design phases nearly a year earlier.

But the schedule still evens out over time: Flight testing is now planned to begin in the third quarter of 2025, and wrap up in the fourth quarter of FY29, which is consistent in both FY21 and FY22 justification books.

The Army plans to equip the first unit with FLRAA in FY30.

The RFP is out

The Army delivered its RFP to industry on July 6, according to sources. The document was not posted publicly, but Army Contracting Command at Redstone Arsenal confirmed to Defense News that the RFP was issued but limited to competitors based on a justification and approval signed by the Army acquisition chief.

The service posted a notice of intent to solicit a requirement using the acquisition vehicle “other than full and open competition” in December to the public contracting website SAM.gov.

According to an ACC spokesperson, the RFP “supports the FLRAA’s acquisition strategy to continue maximizing competition in order to increase both economic efficiency and innovation. This contract will encompass the development, prototyping, flight test and fielding of the FLRAA weapons system.”

As the service laid out in its request for information, the plan is for a head-to-head competition between Bell and the Sikorsky-Boeing team.

The team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin-owned Sikorsky plan to submit its Defiant X coaxial aircraft based off its SB-1 Defiant technology demonstrator it built and is still flying for the Army as part of a competitive demonstration and risk reduction effort. The CDRR will run through the third quarter of FY22.

Bell has also been flying a technology demonstrator aircraft — the V-280 Valor tilt rotor — for the Army and is also participating in the CDRR. Bell recently retired its demonstrator, which had been flying since December 2017 but is still contributing data and analysis as part of the CDRR.

Bell is expected to submit a tilt-rotor design closely based on its demonstrator.

Bids are due in the fourth quarter of FY21, according to budget documents. The Army plans to evaluate proposals through the second quarter of FY22, when it will make an award to one bidder to build prototypes.

According to the documents, the Army plans to conduct a virtual prototyping phase beginning at the time of contract award through the first quarter of FY24 that will run concurrently with the preliminary and detailed design phase.

The selected team will begin building prototypes in the third quarter of FY23.

The RFP, obtained by Defense News, lays out a three-phased approach for delivering FLRAA beginning with the virtual prototype effort and a preliminary design review followed by a second phase that will include a critical design review and the building of six engineering and manufacturing development prototype aircraft, followed by two limited-user evaluation prototype aircraft.

Joint government and contractor testing and evaluation will happen in the second phase of the effort. In the third phase, the contractor will deliver eight low-rate initial production aircraft.

The RFP also lays out a detailed incentive plan for the contractor to deliver prototypes and move through test and evaluation more quickly. Incentives are also offered if the aircraft can exceed requirements for weight-growth capacity and external-load mission payloads.

The Army has set its threshold speed requirement for the aircraft at 230 knots, with an objective requirement of 280 knots, according to the RFP. The contract would set up an incentive to reach the objective speed requirement as well.

Funding boosts

The Army also plans to buy a future attack reconnaissance aircraft, or FARA, over roughly the same timeline, but has already awarded competitive contracts to Bell and Lockheed Martin. Those companies are now bending metal to build flyable aircraft by the end of FY22.

The service plans to select a winner in the first quarter of FY24 following a yearlong flyoff over FY23.

The Army is requesting $448.4 million in FY22 for FLRAA development efforts and $650.2 million for FARA efforts.

According to the FY21 Army budget documents, the service had planned to fund the FLRAA program in FY22 at just $178.2 million. The FY21 documents showed the Army intended to fund FARA at a similar level of $611.1 million.

The Army noted in its FY22 justification books that the additional $267.6 million in the FLRAA funding line is to “support an extended [CDRR] II effort by continuing competition, accelerating preliminary design and setting the conditions to award the program of record contract.”

The service justifies the additional funding for FARA as a means to cover the cost of air vehicle design and mission systems integration risk reduction efforts, according to the documents.

The House Appropriations Committee was the first out of the gate to issue a draft FY22 spending bill at the end of June and would like to add an additional $388 million for both of the future vertical lift programs. It is unclear whether other committees will follow suit, but if it carries, that would mean the Army will invest $1.1 billion toward future vertical lift capabilities.