The parent company of helicopter manufacturer Bell remains confident the firm will prevail in the competition to build the US Army’s new Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA).
Speaking on a 25 January investor call, Scott Donnelly, chief executive of Bell parent Textron, said he does not think the army’s decision will be overturned.
“It’s hard for me to understand what flaw there might have been in the process,” says Donnelly of the competitive process that led to the FLRAA decision. “We think the army made the right choice.”
Bell overcame fellow FLRAA finalist Sikorsky in winning a contract to deliver the replacement to the long-serving Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk. Bell put forward its V-280 Valor tiltrotor, while the team of Sikorsky and Boeing proposed their DefiantX coaxial design.
Last December, the army announced it had chosen the V-280 and awarded Bell an initial development contract worth $1.3 billion, concluding a decade-long process to secure a new design.
However, Sikorsky parent company Lockheed Martin challenged that decision, filing an official protest with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) later that month.
“Based on a thorough review of the information and feedback provided by the army, Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky, on behalf of Team Defiant, is challenging the FLRAA decision,” Lockheed said.
The move triggered a 100-day formal review of the entire FLRAA contracting process by the independent GAO, which Donnelly says should conclude before the first week of April.
The GAO will review the entirety of the FLRAA process, including how the army developed its programme requirements, how the competition was administered and what factors determined the decision.
Any practices found to be inconsistent with government contracting regulations could result in the decision being overturned.
US government procurement rules require such decisions be unbiased and based purely on the criteria established in requests for proposal, according to legal consulting firm UpCounsel. The firm says “all bidders must be treated fairly and judged on an equal basis”.
Officials with the Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) team, which oversees aircraft development, have not released documents detailing the performance of the two aircraft and why Bell’s design was selected.
However, army leaders, including FVL head Major General Walter Rugen, have repeatedly indicated that flight speed and range were likely the two most-important factors in the FLRAA decision.
The initial FLRAA request for information provided to industry by the army established objective requirements of a 2,440nm (4,520km) one-way, un-refuelled flight range and continuous cruise speeds of at least 280kt (518km/h).
Other requirements include an average manufacturing cost not greater than $43 million per aircraft, ability to carry 12 passengers and capacity to carry a 4,540kg (10,000lb) external payload.
Donnelly says he is unaware of specific factors to which Lockheed is objecting. Lockheed, in announcing its protest, said it believes the bids were not fairly assessed.
“The data and discussions lead us to believe the proposals were not consistently evaluated to deliver the best value in the interest of the army,” Lockheed said. “We remain confident DefiantX is the transformational aircraft the army requires to accomplish its complex missions today and well into the future.”
The GAO must submit preliminary reports 30 days after protest submissions. Lockheed filed its protest on 28 December.
The winner of the FLRAA contract will supply aircraft to replace the roughly 2,300 Black Hawk helicopters currently in service with the US Army. The modernisation effort, which will roll out over the coming decades, is worth billions of dollars in revenue to the winner.
Donnelly notes the initial FLRAA contracts will be lower-margin, engineering and manufacturing development contracts. However, he says revenue will pick up as the programme matures.
“Clearly it will ramp as we go into 2024, 2025,” Donnelly says.
Textron expects Bell to see a modest increase in revenue in 2023, rising to $3.3 billion, up from $3.1 billion in 2022.