Army helicopter contract award, stealth bomber reveal highlight big month for defense sector

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The U.S. Army announced plans for its largest helicopter procurement in decades while the Air Force held the first public reveal of its next-generation stealth bomber last week, capping a momentous start to the month for the defense sector.

Army officials announced on December 5th that the Bell V-280 Valor tiltrotor helicopter won the contract for the service's Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), which will eventually see it replace the iconic UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, made by Sikorsky Aircraft.

Bell, a subsidiary of Textron Inc., will receive $232 million for the initial contract award and up to $1.3 billion to continue producing designs and prototypes of the V-280. That figure may rise to $7 billion as the aircraft enters low-rate production. 

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Split of V-280 Valor helicopter (left) and B-21 Raider stealth bomber (right) –courtesy of Bell and U.S. Air Force respectively. (Bell and U.S. Air Force / Fox News)

The contract could be worth as much as $70 billion over the life of the fleet, including possible foreign military sales according to Maj. Gen. Rob Barrie. He said that the Army couldn't be more specific about why the V-280 was chosen but said that in broad terms it offered to the "best value" following a "comprehensive analysis of a variety of factors."

The V-280 Valor was designed to have a higher speed and longer range than the UH-60 Black Hawk, which was demonstrated by prototypes of the tiltrotor helicopter. Its design includes improvements based on lessons learned from the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor that's already in service with the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy, in addition to Japan's ground forces. If the rest of the V-280's development proceeds as planned, it will likely enter service in the mid-2030s.

"This is an exciting time for the U.S. Army, Bell, and Team Valor as we modernize the Army's aviation capabilities for decades to come," Bell CEO Mitch Snyder said in a statement. "Bell has a long history supporting Army Aviation and we are ready to equip Soldiers with the speed and range they need to compete and win using the most mature, reliable, and affordable high-performance long-range assault weapon system in the world."

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A promotional image of the V-280 Valor helicopter, courtesy of Bell. (Bell / Fox News)

In the wake of the announcement, the team behind the chief rival to the V-280 may file a protest of the contract award, which occurs regularly in the defense sector. Sikorsky, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, and Boeing developed the Sikorsky-Boeing Defiant X compound coaxial helicopter which was the other finalist for the FLRAA award.

A statement released by Sikorsky and Boeing following the contract award announcement said they "remain confident Defiant X is the transformational aircraft the U.S. Army requires to accomplish its complex missions today and in the future. We will evaluate our next steps after reviewing feedback from the Army."

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An official photo of the B-21 raider stealth bomber unveiling courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. (US Air Force photo / 94th Airlift Wing / Fox News)

The Army's announcement followed close on the heels of the Air Force's unveiling of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber on December 3rd. The Raider is the first new American bomber to be produced since the last Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit rolled off the manufacturing line more than two decades ago and is the world's first sixth-generation aircraft.

Many of the details regarding the Raider, which will be capable of carrying conventional and nuclear payloads, resembles the B-2 and is expected to form part of America's nuclear deterrent for decades to come. The company said it is optimized for the high-end threat environment, using agile software development, advanced manufacturing techniques, digital engineering tools and cloud technology. 

Northrop Grumman said it is continuously working to ensure that the B-21 "will defeat the anti-access, area-denial systems it will face." Other changes likely include advanced materials used in coatings to make the bomber harder to detect, new ways to control electronic emissions and the use of new propulsion technologies, according to several defense analysts.

An official unveiling of the B-21 Raider Stealth bomber; courtesy of the Department of Defense. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley / Fox News)

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Currently, six B-21 Raiders are in various stages of production, but the Air Force plans to build 100 that can be used with or without a human crew. Eventually, the Air Force plans to structure its bomber fleet around the B-21 Raider and updated versions of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, although it's unclear what actions Congress may take in the future that delay the retirement of the Rockwell B-1 Lancer and the B-2 Spirit.

The Raider will make its first flight next year, and Northrop Grumman has been testing the aircraft's performance using a virtual replica. Since the contract was awarded in 2015, Northrop Grumman has assembled a team of more than 8,000 from the company, industry partners and the Air Force, consisting of more than 400 suppliers across 40 states.

Fox Business' Julia Musto and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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