Aerospace manufacturer Bell Textron Inc. is competing for two U.S. Army contracts to build two models of future helicopters. Billions of dollars are on the line for three leading defense contractors competing for the lucrative contracts.
The Army is expected to make a decision about which company will build the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft and will replace Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawk in the coming months. That decision is likely to come in September, Douglas Bush, assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, said in a U.S. Senate hearing.
The contracts are part of Future Vertical Lift – an effort to modernize the Army.
Each company is trying to make an aircraft that meets the Army’s requirements for the new helicopters, while saving money during manufacturing to be the most appealing contractor. Bell estimates the award of the contracts would preserve and add potentially hundreds of jobs in Fort Worth, Arlington, Amarillo and across the nation.
Dudley Smith, a professor of practice in mechanical engineering with expertise in the aerospace industry at University of Texas at Arlington, believes losing the bids could be devastating for the companies.
“It could be the life and the death of a company,” Smith said.
Why the stakes are high
The U.S. Department of Defense awarded $83 billion in contracts to Texas aerospace companies in 2020. Bell, which is headquartered in Fort Worth, employs more than 4,000 people.
Lockheed Martin employs more than 22,000 people in the Fort Worth area and has produced aircrafts such as the F-16 Falcon, F-35 Lightning II at the company’s aeronautics facility according to a Lockheed Martin spokesperson. Sikorsky is headquartered in Stratford, Connecticut.
Defense contractor Elbit Systems is also based in Fort Worth and is making display systems for the reconnaissance aircraft contracts.
The two mammoth defense department contracts don’t come around every day – or even every decade.
The Black Hawk has been in operation since 1979, when it replaced Bell’s UH-1 Iroquois or Huey, and the Army’s scout helicopter hasn’t been updated in more than 40 years, Smith said.
During World War II, there were many contracts and aerospace companies to meet the demand, Smith said. After that, the number of companies shrank through the 50s and 60s as the number of contracts dwindled. As technology and requirements got more expensive, companies merged, he said.
“Once you get into the production of one of these things, it’s going to last for a long period of time, and there’s not going to be another competition,” Smith said. “So what could happen is, if one company was … pushed to the side by completely losing any access to this contract … they might not survive.”
Richard Aboulafia, managing director at Aerodynamic Advisory, a boutique aerospace and defense consultancy, said he thinks more is at stake for Bell because the company’s military contracts are starting to wind down.
“This is really the only big thing on the horizon,” Aboulafia said. “For Boeing, of course, it’s kind of almost a rounding error in their numbers. And for Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky, same really, and they’re in pretty good shape as the incumbent for the (Future Long Range Assault Aircraft) requirement with the Black Hawk series.”
There are several considerations at play for the Army when choosing the replacements, Smith said. How far and fast the aircrafts can fly is a factor. But reliability and cost effectiveness matters, too.
“We’re American taxpayers. And the people that derive these requirements, they’re very sensitive to that, and the military is sensitive to that,” Smith said. “They only have so many dollars, so they have to get as they would say, the best bang for your buck.”
One tactic Bell is using to be competitive: The company opened a Manufacturing Technology Center just off I-35 West in Fort Worth.
The goal of the facility is to reduce the time it takes to manufacture helicopter parts that are most difficult to make. Those are often parts that enable the helicopter to fly, such as gearboxes and rotor blades.
Typical lead times for a helicopter take about three to four years and involve tens of thousands of parts, said Glenn Isbell, vice president of prototyping and testing at Bell. Assembling the helicopter is relatively easy, but getting the parts is harder, he said.
“Each of those parts have material and each of those parts have a supplier and each of those parts have a manufacturing process and everything has to kind of work through those ways,” Isbell said. “And then there’s some of them … I need this part before I can make this part before I can make this part. So there’s a lot of dependencies there.”
Bell’s manufacturing center makes the process faster. Isbell shows off a helicopter mast, a part that helps the aircraft lift off the ground that was manufactured at the facility. Usually it takes a year to 18 months to build that piece of equipment, he said, but it took 16 hours at the facility.
Inside the building, there’s equipment such as a 3D printer that is used to lay up parts and a machine that heats, cools and conditions metal that will be used for gears.
“We thought that …if I can make, if I can deliver them an aircraft in two years, when they order it, instead of three or four years, then that’s good for everybody,” Isbell said. “It’s good for us. It’s good for them.”
Boeing and Sikorsky currently produce 90% of helicopters for the Army. The companies are using technology such as advanced analytics, robotics and artificial intelligence to produce the prototypes, said Jay Macklin, Sikorsky director of business development.
“The factory of the future is not some empty building somewhere that’s going to be filled with a bunch of high tech gear or something,” Macklin said. “It’s actually in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for Boeing and Stratford, Connecticut, for Sikorsky. I mean, these procedures are implemented on our production lines today.”
The advanced manufacturing techniques are meant to reduce production and testing costs along with the cost it takes to sustain the aircrafts over time.
Defense consultant Aboulafia said these efforts are ways to show they are minimizing risk and managing supply chains.
“It’s kind of like saying, ‘Wow, they’re trying to show me that this car has a … carburetor and you should buy that car, it’s a good car,” Aboulafia said.
These contracts are different, though, because it’s a big effort to reinvent the architecture and basic design of a helicopter. Which company earns the contract will depend on what the Army wants for its future.
“The big question is: Does the military want to do something completely new, which is the Lockheed Sikorsky, Boeing design, or something that’s a refinement of something that’s been in service for a few decades, which is the Bell tilt rotor concept,” Aboulafia said. “And I tend to think the latter has a lot more appeal.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.