AMARILLO, Texas – Bell Helicopter’s V-280 Valor is ready to carry troops into combat as a functional tilt-rotor airframe, company officials claim. 

The experimental aircraft is ready to enter the acquisition cycle and move beyond the early development phases, according to a company official.

Bell’s director of global military business development, Carl Coffman says the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrators (JMR-TD) aircraft may be closer to the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase.

A concept image of Bell Helicopter's V-280 Valor tiltrotor aircraft.
A concept image of Bell Helicopter’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor aircraft.

But according to Maj. Gen. William Gayler, chief of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence (AACE), the FVL program is not treating industry offerings as prototypes. Both Bell’s V-280 and the Sikorsky/Boeing [BA] team’s SB-1 Defiant are participants in the program.

“JMR-TD are not prototypes. They are an experiment of technologies,” Gayler said at a recent Army aviation forum hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army. “It’s going to inform what the final requirements will be.”

Bell considers the V-280 a prototype. The company announced the aircraft had reached construction completion Sept. 13. And during a recent media event at Bell’s Amarillo assembly center, the company said the V-280 had performed its first ground test on Sept. 20.

“If this aircraft was built outside of a tech demonstrator agreement, it certainly meets the requirements, meets the definition criteria of being called a competitive prototype,” Coffman told Defense Daily. “We’ve gone above and beyond a tech demonstrator build here, we’re at [Technology Readiness Level] 6… So we’re considering that a competitive prototype.”

According to Coffman and Bell’s V-280 program manager, Chris Gehler, the motivation for building a competitive prototype, despite the absence of an official competition, is to get the capabilities to the warfighter as quickly as possible. Bell’s hope is that moving forward with a competitive prototype would speed up the acquisition timeline. Instead of entering the EMD phase in the mid-2020s, with initial operation capabilities the following decade, Gehler said the V-280 program could enter the EMD phase in 2019 or 2020. For that to happen, long-talked-about defense acquisition reform would need to be a reality.

“There’s this opportunity here to take credit for all this JMR, which has the same goals that you would have in a technology maturation risk reduction — just remove that and go straight into an engineering manufacturing development. [That’s] five to eight years faster in acquisition,” Gehler said. “[You’re] not really increasing risk because you’re just taking credit for all the stuff you’re doing now.

“When DoD talks about acquisition reform, this is one of the concepts that they internally are looking at,” he continued. “It’s really a matter of what each of the bureaucracies inside there will agree to. But certainly the chief of staff of the Army, or the secretary of Defense, would like to see capability to a warfighter sooner. If you’ve done all the requirements that we would have done here anyway, then looking at entering into Milestone B instead of doing a technology maturation risk reduction phase again, certainly makes a lot of sense.”

The Army is well aware of Bell’s intent, and the manufacturer has been working closely with the service during the whole process. Coffman said the U.S. government has been Bell’s partner throughout.

“We just have a disagreement on what we call the aircraft, whether it be a demonstrator or a prototype,” he said.

Bell has invited the government to come see the aircraft and perform a Technology Readiness Assessment. Bell hopes the invitation to “grade our homework and tell us where you think we are,” as Coffman put it, will lead to an agreement in the argument of prototype or demonstrator. 

The V-280 is scheduled for a hover flight in November and conventional flight the following month. Along with fulfilling Capability Set 3 of the FVL program, Bell views the V-280 as a testbed for its V-247 unmanned tiltrotor. Testing into 2018 could involve a variety of different technologies for a future Marine Corps bid. But in the short term, the manufacturer looks to provide the military a replacement for the Sikorsky UH-60 and other medium-lift rotorcraft, as well as an escort to the V-22.

“We know that there is still engineering and manufacturing development phase ahead of us, as far as the acquisition process. But we believe this aircraft will revolutionize the way our military operates,” said Vince Tobin, Bell’s executive vice president of Military Business. “It’s the speed, range, payload with the vertical-lift-takeoff-and-landing capability that a tiltrotor provides. And we see the V280 as being an excellent compliment to the V-22 that’s already fielded.”

Bell is part of Textron [TXT]. Sikorsky is a Lockheed Martin [LMT] business unit.