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Army Picks Firms to Build Future Helicopter

The U.S. Army has picked two industry teams to move forward with development of futuristic rotorcraft, signaling it plans to pursue both coaxial and tilt-rotor designs for now, the companies announced on Tuesday.

The service selected a team led by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., part of United Technologies Corp., and Boeing Co. to build a helicopter for the first phase of the Joint Multi-Role technology demonstrator program, according to a statement. The firms partnered to develop the SB>1 Defiant, a medium-lift chopper based on Sikorsky's X2 coaxial design and expected to fly for the first time in 2017.

The technology "will provide the best future vertical lift solution to the U.S. Army, and the flexibility of our design makes it suited for naval applications as well," Mick Maurer, Sikorsky's president, said in the press release. "This is a major leap forward."

A spokeswoman for Boeing said the company was informed of the Army's decision on Monday. "Our team brings leadership and new ways of thinking to aircraft development," Shelley Lavender, president of Boeing's military aircraft segment, said in the statement.

Another team led by Textron Inc.'s Bell Helicopter was also selected to continuing developing its new, tilt-rotor concept called the Bell V-280 Valor and fly a prototype of the aircraft, a company official said. Bell is working with Lockheed Martin Corp. and other firms to develop the technology.

"The aircraft can provide the military with unmatched range, speed and payload capabilities, and is designed with operational agility in mind to provide our soldiers transformational reach and revolutionary capability on the battlefield," Keith Flail, program director for the Bell V-280 Valor, said in a statement. "The clean-sheet design of the Bell V-280 Valor creates the capability to fly twice the range at double the speed of any existing helicopter."

Bell V-280 aircraft rendering

Bell makes the Army's OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter, among others, and partnered with Boeing to develop and build the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which is flown by the Marine Corps and Air Force. But the companies pursued a different teaming arrangement for the Army's next-generation helicopter program.

Despite automatic budget cuts, the Army is trying to protect research and development funding to design future chopers that fly twice as far as today's models and with better fuel efficiency.

The development effort could lead to a potentially $100 billion so-called Future Vertical Lift program to place the service's fleets of  UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters made by Sikorsky and AH-64 Apache attack choppers made by Boeing, though the aircraft probably wouldn't enter service until the 2030s.

The Army had planned to select two firms or teams to continue development of JMR designs. By choosing the Sikorsky-Boeing team and Bell, the service appears to have placed its bets on proposals from bigger, more established contractors over competing ideas from the smaller, closely held firms AVX Aircraft Co. and Karem Aircraft Inc.

Mike Cox, a spokesman for AVX Aircraft, said the company is still in negotiations with the Army. "We believe we are going to continue with some level of work, though I can't tell you how much that is," he said in a telephone interview.

Bill Crawford, a spokesman for the Army's Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center in Alabama, didn't confirm the down-select and said the service is still in talks with contractors. "The Army will make a formal announcement regarding the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator in late August," he said in an e-mail. "The Army and the four industry teams are currently in negotiations. AMRDEC will make the announcement once these negotiations have been finalized."

(Story was updated to include details of potential successor program in 9th paragraph and quotes from Army official in 11th paragraph.)

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