Between them, they supply 80% of the U.S. Army's helicopters. Now Boeing and Sikorsky are teaming for the long haul in a bid to develop and produce advanced rotorcraft to replace those helicopters.

The companies will submit a joint proposal in early March for the first phase of the Army's Joint Multi-Role technology demonstration (JMR TD). But their teaming is a long-term commitment to pursue jointly the proposed follow-on Future Vertical Lift Medium (FVL-M) program to replace the Army's utility and attack helicopter fleets beginning in the 2030s.

FVL-M is the only new-development program on the horizon for a U.S. industry that is being kept in robust health, producing upgrades of existing platforms while being starved of the new programs needed to underwrite development of the next generation of advanced rotorcraft.

Boeing, Sikorsky and the Bell Boeing tiltrotor joint venture have been studying JMR demonstrator concepts separately under contracts from the Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD). Boeing's decision to team long-term with Sikorsky leaves Bell Helicopter on its own to pursue a tiltrotor solution for both JMR TD and FVL-M.

Boeing and Sikorsky have worked together on the Army's RAH-66 Comanche scout helicopter, which was canceled in 2004. “We will jointly pursue JMR TD Phase 1 and 2 . . . and use that as a springboard for FVL,” says Samir Mehta, president of Sikorsky Military Systems.

Phase 1 is focused on the air vehicle, with award of contracts for two demonstrators planned this fall, leading to first flights in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2017. Phase 2, for the mission equipment package, is scheduled to begin in 2015. Leanne Caret, Boeing vice president and general manager for vertical lift, highlights the company's work on advanced flight controls and mission systems for the CH-47F and AH-64E.

Bell, meanwhile, says it “has made the strategic decision to lead the development of next-generation tiltrotor technology for the Army's Future Vertical Lift program.” The company is “exploring additional business relationships with a number of prospective partners and suppliers.”

Teaming of the Army's two major helicopter suppliers could provide an opening for European manufacturers to compete. AgustaWestland says it “is committed to the U.S. market and ready to evaluate future opportunities there,” but adds the company “is now more focused on the VXX [presidential helicopter] and, possibly, the AAS [Armed Aerial Scout], which may have closer requirements in terms of timelines.”

EADS North America says it is “currently evaluating how our capabilities align to the needs articulated in the BAA [JMR TD Phase broad area announcement].” But the decision by the two major U.S. primes to team is not expected to influence “one way or the other, whether the company pursues FVL-M, a source says.

The goal of JMR TD “is to mitigate risk for the program of record by examining configurations and components of FVL candidate technologies. The JMR TD BAA does not preclude or suggest teaming,” says Bill Lewis, director of the Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center's Aviation Development Directorate.

“In addition, the nature of the FVL-Medium program and FVL family of vehicles, utilizing a common architecture and operating environment, will allow for competition by all throughout the life cycle of the fleet,” he says.

The long timescale envisioned for the FVL program—which would not get underway until the mid-2020s, and not begin replacing the Army's Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks until the mid-2030s—is a key reason behind Boeing and Sikorsky opting to team now, while operational requirements and program plans are at an early stage, says Mehta.

“We are discussing a very long-term program, and we are in it for the long haul together,” he says. “We are relying on the technology processes in both companies and their ability to continue to innovate in the long term.”

Boeing and Sikorsky are not revealing the configuration they will propose for JMR TD Phase 1. But the solicitation sets as an objective a speed of at least 230 kt., 50% faster than today's helicopters. Although Mehta emphasizes 230 kt. is “an objective,” it is likely the team will propose a compound helicopter, given the investment Sikorsky is making in its X2 high-speed coaxial-rotor compound configuration.

AATD is focusing on higher-speed rotorcraft under JMR TD because its past investment has been in conventional helicopter technology. The directorate wants to balance its research portfolio before the Army has to make a decision around the end of the decade on choosing a conventional or advanced rotorcraft configuration for FVL-M.

“No doubt, the requirements we have in hand will alter over time,” says Mehta. “If the requirements change, our intent is to continue to pursue them together. This is a technology and a business collaboration. It is not specific to one existing technology.”

Bell, meanwhile, says AATD's operational effectiveness analysis report for JMR TD “validated the unprecedented speed and range of tiltrotor technology that will be required to meet future military operations.”

The Army is looking for increased speed, range, payload, hot/high performance and commonality from the FVL, says Maj. Gen. Kevin Mangum, commander of the Army's Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala. “Speed is absolutely important,” he says, to enable forcible entry into denied areas, support geographically distributed forces and engage time-sensitive targets, as well as improve survivability and responsiveness.

At 230 kt., the FVL-M would be almost 50% faster than the UH-60M, with more than 40% longer unrefueled range. The ability to hover at 6,000-ft. density altitude on a 95F day would allow the rotorcraft to operate in 90% of critical regions worldwide where the 4,000-ft./95F hot/high performance of today's helicopters restricts operations, he says. Magnum also argues that commonality between attack and utility rotorcraft would reduce development costs, improve logistics and deployability, simplify training and increase flexibility and interoperability.

The acceptability to the Pentagon of its two major helicopter suppliers teaming for the next major rotorcraft development program remains to be seen, as does the impact on wider industry. “There will be no impact on [Sikorsky's] existing areas of cooperation,” such as its teaming with Lockheed Martin on the Combat Rescue Helicopter and VXX presidential helicopter programs, says Mehta. As for Boeing, “the Bell partnership is as strong as ever, and focused on the V-22,” says Caret.