Procurement officials with US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) now confirm they plan to field Bell’s V-280 tiltrotor with the US Army regiment that provides rotary-wing aviation support to the USA’s elite commandos.

The SOCOM plan is separate from the army’s existing plan to acquire the vertical take-off and landing V-280 for its conventional aviation forces under the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) programme.

That effort is meant to deliver a successor to the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, although the two aircraft now appear likely to overlap for potentially several decades.

Speaking at the annual SOF Week conference in Tampa on 8 May, US Army Colonel Mark Cleary revealed SOCOM’s plans, saying it intends to field V-280s with the army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR).

“FLRAA is set to come on to the 160th ramp in the middle of the 2030s,” says Cleary, a test pilot who manages aircraft sustainment and modernisation for the army’s special operations fleet.


Source: Bell

While the US Army’s conventional aviation forces will be the V-280’s primary users, the tiltrotor is being designed to be easily adapted for special operations needs

“FLRAA is going to come to the regiment,” adds Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Keough, who manages the MH-60 programme for SOCOM.

Acquisition documents indicate SOCOM plans to field its first special operations-configured V-280 in 2034, several years after the first standard V-280s are fielded to the army.

Created in the early 1980s after an aviation disaster in the Iranian desert scuttled a military effort to rescue American hostages in Iran, the 160th provides rotary-wing aviation support to US special operations forces across the military services. It primarily operates heavily-modified variants of standard army rotorcraft, including the MH-60 derivative of the UH-60 and the MH-47G special operations version of the Boeing CH-47.

Keough calls SOCOM’s modification process a “monster garage” – nodding to an American television series about custom automobile modifications. For the 160th’s aircraft, that process can include structural and electrical changes and fabrication of new fairings.


Source: Bell

The first conventional army unit will field the V-280 around 2030, with special operations aviators receiving their first aircraft in 2034

With other programmes, such extensive alterations are typically conceived after initial aircraft design, making them costly and time consuming to implement. But SOCOM has been working with Bell and the army during the initial FLRAA design process to streamline future special operations forces-oriented modifications.

Brigadier General Scott Wilkinson, head of US Army Special Operations Aviation Command, says the FLRAA design will be easily compatible with the needs of special operations forces.

SOCOM is working with the army to ensure the aircraft can be “rapidly configured for our use… with minimal modification to original airframe”, Wilkinson said in April.

He noted that no formal FLRAA acquisition decision has yet been made for special operations use. 

However, rotary-wing procurement officials at SOCOM confirm that the final V-280 design will incorporate features allowing it to be altered quickly and at minimal cost with special operations features like an air-to-air refuelling probe and nose-mounted terrain-following radar.

“When it does come to us, it’s a vastly reduced effort,” says Keough. “We’re still going to monster-garage it, but now it’s going to be a lot more affordable.”

Bell tells FlightGlobal it expects to deliver the first test aircraft to the army around mid-decade. Special operations test pilots will not begin testing until roughly 2029, says Steven Smith, head of SOCOM’s rotary-wing procurement division.

“We’re closely nested with the army,” Smith says, noting SOCOM test pilots are embedded with the V-280 test team.

However, he says the army’s aviation procurement team will take the lead on the FLRAA acquisition, to include initial flight certification of the standard aircraft design.

Army officials say they expect to equip the first conventional army aviation unit with the V-280 between 2030 and 2031.