V-280 Goes Ahead

By Ashley Roque

The Army and Bell are cleared to proceed with Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) development after the Government Accountability Office denied Sikorsky-Boeing’s protest today.

“In denying the protest, GAO concluded that the Army reasonably evaluated Sikorsky’s proposal as technically unacceptable because Sikorsky failed to provide the level of architectural detail required by the [request for proposal] RFP,” Kenneth Patton, the managing associate general counsel for procurement law at GAO, wrote in a short statement sent out today.

A full report on that decision is not yet publicly available, but Patton explained that the Sikorsky-Boeing team challenged several areas of the Army’s FLRAA decision including: evaluation factors related to “engineering design and development” and architecture; “argued” that the service should have found Bell’s proposal to be “unacceptable”; challenged the cost/price evaluation; and the best-value tradeoff decision.

“GAO also denied Sikorsky’s various allegations about the acceptability of Bell’s proposal, including the assertion that the agency’s evaluation violated the terms of the solicitation or applicable procurement law or regulation,” Patton wrote.

“GAO’s decision expresses no view as to the merits of these proposals,” he later added. “Judgments about which offeror will most successfully meet the government’s needs are reserved for the procuring agencies, subject only to statutory and regulatory requirements.”

Despite today’s decision, the Sikorsky-Boeing team said it still believes that it submitted the “most capable, affordable and lowest-risk” design and is not ready to give up on the deal worth up to $70 billion.

“We will review the GAO’s decision and determine our next steps,” the team added.

A spokesperson for Bell could not be immediately reached for comment.

A Long Awaited Decision

The GAO’s decision comes after it spent three-plus months weighing Sikorsky-Boeing’s protest of the Army’s early December 2022 decision to shun the Defiant X in favor of Bell Textron’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor. The competition’s stakes: the right to eventually replace thousands of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and reshape the global military rotorcraft market.

Maj. Gen. Robert Barrie, the Army’s Program Executive Officer for Aviation, said following the Valor’s victory that that the service used a “best value approach” to make its decision.

“Using…the requirements that the Army had for us, we then had an evaluation using folks from across the enterprise to go towards a set of factors that would deliver a best value approach to the Army,” the two-star general said.

While declining to spell those factors out, Barrie emphasized the service did a “comprehensive analysis of a variety of factors.” Based on that decision, the Army awarded Bell a deal worth up to $1.3 billion with the initial obligation valued at $232 million over the next 19 months. It also tasked the company with moving ahead with the preliminary design of the aircraft and to deliver “virtual prototypes of a potentially model-based system,” Barrie explained.

Bell will not build an actual aircraft during that period, but if the program proceeds as planned, the Army can order an unspecified number of Valors under a deal worth up to $70 billion.

Given what is on the line for this program, many analysists anticipated that the Sikorsky-Boeing team would appeal the decision. By the end of December, it filled an initial protest with the Government Accountability Office, before lodging a supplemental one on Feb. 6.

“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,” the team wrote in a Dec. 28 statement. “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, our soldiers and American taxpayers.”

The team asserted that Defiant X was more the “capable, affordable and lowest-risk solution.”

Ahead of today’s disclosure, a Sikorsky spokesperson declined to provide Breaking Defense with additional details about the team’s protest. However, over the past several months lawmakers from Connecticut, where Sikorsky is based, have publicly taken aim at the service’s decision.

“Despite direct engagement with the Army, we as members of Congress have not yet been able to get the answers that we need regarding how the Army came to their original decision on FLRAA. This is unacceptable,” seven House and Senate lawmakers wrote in an Dec. 29, 2022 statement. “We are hopeful that this protest action and the forthcoming process will shed light on the Army’s decision making, and that the highest level of fidelity is conducted throughout.”

One of those lawmakers, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, has published subsequent op-eds in various publications, including one on March 2 in Military.com. In it, Murphy claimed the Army has still not briefed lawmakers about its FLRAA pick and said it will not do so until the protest is resolved.

Way Ahead

Today’s decision comes at a time when lawmakers are conducting initial hearings on the Army’s fiscal 2024 budget request. In it, the service details a plan to spend $622 million on research and development of the FLRAA middle tier acquisition effort between FY22 and FY25, while also requesting $958 million in FY24 for the purchase of FLRAA hardware and software “necessary” for the prototype.

The service plans to begin buying the aircraft in FY27 and said it will request $572 million for that year, followed by $613 million for FY28, according to budget justification documents.

It is not clear if Connecticut lawmakers will continue to rail against the Army’s decision and possibly block FLRAA funding in the years to come.

This article was published by Breaking Defense on April 6, 2023.