These 5 Companies Will Face Off to Build the Army's Next Helicopter

The U.S. Army has selected a "who's who" list of contractors to compete to design its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) helicopter, setting up an intriguing battle that could go a long way toward influencing what the Pentagon will be looking for in other helicopter competitions planned for the coming years.

The Army on April 23 selected Boeing (NYSE: BA), Lockheed Martin's (NYSE: LMT) Sikorsky, Textron's (NYSE: TXT) Bell, a pairing of L-3 Technologies (NYSE: LLL) and AVX Aircraft, and Karem Aircraft from a group of eight candidates to design potential replacements for the retired OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter. All five winners were awarded between $732 million and $938 million apiece to advance their designs.

Two of those five teams will move forward at the end of the design phase, which could come as early as March 2020. The payoff to the winner would be significant: The Army has discussed replacing about half of its roughly 750 AH-64 Apache helicopters -- which have been filling in for the Kiowa since 2012 in addition to their attack duties -- at a maximum fly-away cost of $30 million apiece, plus R&D.

The competition is also the first in a series the Army will run in the coming years to modernize its helicopter force, and could give the winner a leg up on future battles. While each competition will have different requirements, the Pentagon is likely to want some commonality in its fleet for training and maintenance purposes.

Here's a brief rundown of the competitors to build the FARA.

The favorite

Lockheed Martin's Sikorsky has been targeting this competition from the beginning, with the company set to offer the S-97 Raider with counter-rotating coaxial main rotor blades. It's a complex technology that Sikorsky has been working to perfect via the Raider and with Boeing on the larger Defiant helicopter, which is one of two entries in the Army's Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR) program.

Lockheed Martin's Sikorsky Raider helicopter design.

Lockheed Martin Sikorsky's Raider helicopter design. Image source: Lockheed Martin.

Army officials have described the FARA as a "knife fighter," and the Raider in theory would be ideal to quickly penetrate and exit enemy territory and maneuver through high-risk contested environments. The coaxial design improves helicopter stability and allows it to travel faster than conventional designs.

The Raider is likely to be the most mature design in the competition, with Sikorsky first demonstrating the core coaxial technology a decade ago. The current design has been flying since 2015 but not without incident: A Raider frame experienced substantial damage in 2017 from a hard landing after a test flight.

For all its testing, the coaxial is still a difficult design to get right. Sikorsky believes it has solved one of the key issues normally associated with coaxial helicopters -- vibration -- though it remains to be seen if the mitigation is good enough to survive the Army's scrutiny. The risk for Lockheed Martin is the company is asking the Pentagon to trust that it can bring a high-tech, unproven design in on time and on budget, something that many contractors, Lockheed included, have failed to do in the past.

The challengers

Textron's Bell is the other JMR participant, with a tilt-rotor airplane/helicopter hybrid design instead of a coaxial. But unlike Sikorsky, Bell decided against scaling down its JMR offering for this competition, instead building its bid around its forthcoming Bell 525 conventional helicopter.

Bell has a lot at stake here. Not only did it produce the Kiowa, it was also originally selected to modernize that program before the Army canceled it due to budget constraints.

Textron's Bell 525 helicopter at an air field.

Textron's Bell 525 helicopter. Image source: Textron.

Textron CEO Scott C. Donnelly on his company's first-quarter earnings call April 17 called the 525 "a very competitive offering for FARA." He noted that because the 525's technology and controls are similar to what the Army is requesting, it is just a matter of scaling it down to a size and weight that meet the FARA requirements.

If you look at what's required from a speed and performance standpoint to execute the FARA mission, we think we have some technology that's been validated, that can meet that requirement with a much more cost-effective, much more reliable conventional technology. I say conventional, I mean this is obviously a big step in terms of a more conventional rotor craft, but I think we have a proposal on the table that meets the requirements and can do it in a very cost-effective, very highly reliable and sustainable way.

Emphasis on "cost-effective." At a time when the Army has a number of big-ticket priorities and a potentially limited budget, Textron is hoping the Pentagon will favor a more conventional, lower-risk option.

Boeing, meanwhile, is expected to offer a new derivative of the Apache that would be faster, longer-range, and more fuel-efficient than the current fleet. Like Bell, it is offering a lower-risk, lower-cost option than a clean-sheet design, and Boeing's offering has the advantage of being a platform that the service is already very familiar with.

But Boeing will likely have to make significant modifications to the Apache to have a shot. As mentioned, the Apache has been the stand-in scout in recent years, and the Army is running a new competition because, in the words of Brig. Gen. Walter Rugen, Apache is "a suboptimal solution" because it is an attack helicopter and not built with reconnaissance in mind.

The newcomers

AVX Aircraft cleared a major milestone advancing to the final five. The company was established in 2005, and its technology has found its way into other platforms, notably the Northrop Grumman TERN drone, but it was on the outside looking in on both the JMR demonstration and in the original competition to replace the Kiowa.

The AVX/L-3 design uses a coaxial main rotor similar to Sikorsky's. It has duct fans on either side of the upper fuselage to provide thrust and small wings to provide stability and allow for weapons mounting. L-3, which is in the process of merging with Harris in a deal that would vault it into the upper echelon of defense names, brings manufacturing know-how and electronics and sensor integration experience to the bid.

Artist rendering of the AVX/L-3 entry flying across a desert landscape.

Rendering of the AVX/L-3 entry. Image source: AVX Aircraft.

The design features a high-tech control system and modular, open-architecture avionics that should be easily upgradable in future years, which in theory should help the Army limit maintenance costs. The companies also said the design will have folding rotors that will allow it to fit inside a C-17 transport plane or onboard an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, potentially offering the Pentagon a one-stop solution as it sources helicopters for different branches.

Less is known about the Karem Aircraft proposal, but that company was also active in the JMR demonstration and has been working to develop technology for the Army's push to replace its medium-lift cargo helicopter. Karem's previous designs have been focused on tilt-rotor technology. The company was founded by Abraham Karem, a drone pioneer. 

And the winner is?

In March, I said Sikorsky is well positioned to win the FARA competition, and assuming its work with the tricky coaxial technology continues without incident, that still seems the most likely bet. Lockheed Martin spent $9 billion to buy Sikorsky with competitions like this one in mind, and the design's combination of airplane-like speed and helicopter-like maneuverability makes it the horse to beat.

Textron's Bell offering could be a wild card, depending on how much performance the company is able to squeeze out of a more traditional helicopter design. It won't be as glamorous as tilt-rotors or coaxials, but it would also likely be a more affordable option and easier to train on and maintain, and the lack of a bleeding-edge component means it is more likely not to face the sort of schedule delays that often accompany new designs.

Given Boeing's size, resources, and helicopter expertise, it is dangerous to rule that company out, but if the Army wanted to buy the Apache for this role, it could have avoided a prolonged competition. It seems as though it would take unexpected development setbacks by either Sikorsky or Bell to give one of the other contenders a fighting chance. That's possible, though, since Sikorsky's coaxial is still relatively unproven and Bell will be asking a lot out of its commercial design.

No matter the outcome, the Pentagon is about to get an up-close look at different options for the helicopter of the future.

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Lou Whiteman owns shares of Harris. The Motley Fool recommends Textron. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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