Will the U.S. Army, the Pentagon's largest consumer of rotorcraft, ever buy into tiltrotor technology in its pursuit of a replacement for the workhorse Black Hawk and Apache fleets?

John Garrison, CEO of Bell Helicopter—builder of the most successful tiltrotor, which is capable of taking off and landing vertically but flying like an aircraft—is betting that the Army will.

The company already has a foot in the door. The Army recently gave Bell a contract to develop its tiltotor technology for the Joint Multirole (JMR) Technology Demonstration project; the results will help the service decide how to proceed with a Sikorsky Black Hawk and Boeing Apache replacement. Sikorsky(teamed with Boeing), Karem Aircraft and AVX Aircraft are also working under similar, nine-month contracts to refine initial designs in preparation for a fiscal year 2017 flight demonstration if the Army can afford it.

Data from the JMR demo are expected to feed into the Army's plans for the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) effort. Though FVL is divided into separate sizes and classes of helicopters, the contract for FVL-medium—slated to replace the Black Hawk and Apache fleets—will likely be the first to be competed. It will also be the largest single tranche of FVL work and likely set the competitive landscape for rotorcraft in the U.S. for decades to come.

Boeing, Bell's decades-long partner on the V-22 tiltrotor for the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force, sees a very different future for rotorcraft. In a surprise move earlier this year, Boeing abandoned its longtime Osprey partner Bell, which was developing the V-280 Valor, a new tiltrotor, for the Army requirement. Garrison says the V-280 will cost half as much as the V-22 Osprey, or roughly $35 million a unit at peak production for the roughly 4,000 aircraft run, addressing some of the critics who say the Osprey is cost-prohibitive.

Instead, Boeing has switched sides and is backing Sikorsky's plan to pursue a compound helicopter design based on Sikorsky's X2 work with coaxial rotors. AVX plans to build a 70% scale demonstrator of its compound helicopter design.

Karem, designer of the Predator and A-160 Hummingbird unmanned aircraft, shares Garrison's view that a tiltrotor is the best option. His company is building the TR36TD demonstrator, an optimum-speed tiltrotor.

Under JMR, the Army hopes to experiment with aircraft capable of flying 230 kt.; the Valor is expected to exceed that by 50 kt.

The approaches taken by Garrison and Karem are gutsy. The Army has a tattered history with tiltrotor technology, helping to back the XV-3 tiltrotor demonstrator in the 1950s and XV-15 demonstrator project in the 1970s; the latter eventually led to the V-22 design. But, the Army ultimately stuck with conventional helicopter models for its diverse missions—the UH-60, AH-64, CH-47 and OH-58 families.

The V-22 moved forward only for the U.S. Marine Corps with a program of 360 aircraft and another 50 for Air Force Special Operations. A notional requirement of 48 for the U.S. Navy has still not been formalized. So, tiltrotor technology remains a niche capability of combined speed and large payload. Without a volume buy, such as the Army's FVL-medium program could provide for the V-280, Bell cannot make good on the promise of combining speed with affordability.

Largely due to its high cost, the V-22 has not yet garnered a foreign sale, though Bell/Boeing officials have said for years they are close to their first. The likely first customer would be Israel, with the United Arab Emirates expected to follow. Japan is also considered a serious prospect.

The average price for the V-22 for the U.S. Marine Corps in fiscal 2012 was $67 million. That is sliding up to a $70 million target price under the recently signed $6.5 billion Multiyear 2 agreement for 99 aircraft for the Pentagon, according to Col. Greg. Masiello, former V-22 program manager. Ninety-two will go to the Marines, with the balance for the Air Force.

Though USMC and industry officials previously targeted a per-unit price below $60 million, early manufacturing challenges, the Pentagon's order volume and unrealized foreign sales all have pushed costs higher.

Masiello expects foreign sales could reach 100 aircraft in 10 years, but Garrison acknowledges that each country is only likely to buy 8-10 units, so it will take a group of orders to move the needle on the production line.

Garrison says that advances since the V-22 was designed in the 1980s bolster his claim that the V-280 can come in at half the cost. “We know we can take significant cost out of the wing and the wing design and the fuselage and fuselage design and the drive and drive design . . . since the time the V-22 was developed,” he notes, adding that advances in manufacturing composite materials also would lower costs. The V-280's design calls for the engine to be fixed horizontally on the wing with the rotor and drive system located in the tilting pod. This allows for troops to use a side door, rather than relying solely on the rear door as with the Osprey.

Aside from the V-22 and Huey work (the UH-1Y and AH-1Z), Bell's military work is minimal. Doubling down on the promise of vertical lift and speed found in the tiltrotor is risky.

Garrison acknowledges that the ultimate winner of the FVL-medium competition will dominate the domestic military rotorcraft market for the foreseeable future and be a shoo-in for a vast international market. “If you look at the scope and magnitude [of FVL-medium], it is the [Joint Strike Fighter] for the rotorcraft space . . . It has the potential to be a significant consolidating event in the industry just like [F-35] on the fighter side,” Garrison tells Aviation Week. The winner “will ultimately replace the existing portfolio of rotorcraft products, just like the JSF is going to replace the F-15s [and] the F-18s. It will be the vertical-lift asset of the future.”

FVL is unlikely to move forward until the 2020s, as the Army struggles with budget cuts and awaits the outcome of the JMR demonstrations. In the meantime, Bell is hoping to widen its tiltrotor customer base with a long-anticipated U.S. Navy order of Ospreys.

The V-22 is one of two candidates for a C-2 Greyhound replacement for the Navy's Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) mission. It is up against an upgraded C-2 proposed by Northrop Grumman. But, Bell/Boeing will have to influence the requirements and procurement strategy processes to allow for the attributes of the V-22 to be taken into account, given its higher cost. Based solely on unit cost, the V-22 has little chance, even though its flying-hour cost has decreased by 19% to $9,250.

“There is no development cost [with the V-22.] To get a new COD . . . there is going to be significant development dollars” needed, Garrison says. “If you look at the up-front acquisition cost when you compare [the V-22] to an H-60, it looks expensive. But, if you look at the capabilities of what it can perform, it doesn't look as expensive.”

Bell's strategy will be to argue that the V-22 can handle direct delivery missions, or hauling cargo and personnel direct from a land base to a variety of ships—including those with smaller decks. An upgraded C-2, by contrast, would rely on the arrested landing and catapult takeoff systems on the large-deck aircraft carriers to move cargo. As with the C-2s today, the cargo is then ferried to ships from the carrier via conventional helicopters.

An eventual Army buy-in for the V-280 could be the impetus to drive tiltrotors into the commercial market, explains Garrison; the V-22's high cost prevented it from penetrating that market.

“When you start getting to the volumes you are talking about here, now you are getting to a price point where I think the ultimate capability of a tiltrotor in a commercial application could be viable,” he says.

Until 2009, Bell had been teamed with AgustaWestland on the AW609, which is targeted primarily for the nonmilitary market. AgustaWestland is continuing work on the project, though it has not captured wide sales appeal.

With Graham Warwick in Washington