The UH-60 Blackhawk has been faithfully serving as the U.S. Army’s utility helicopter since 1975 and as the U.S. Air Force’s Combat Search & Rescue (CSAR) platform in the guise of the MH-60 Pave Hawk since 1982. (As a personal sidebar note, I got to ride in a Blackhawk during my first Iraq contract gig back in 2011, and ‘twas lotsa fun.)
For comparison, the AH-64 Apache has been serving as the Army’s attack helicopter since 1982.
Wonderfully reliable though the Blackhawk has been, it’s starting to get a bit long in the tooth. With that in mind, defense contractors have been submitting their designs for prospective replacements for the Blackhawk.
One interesting candidate is the SB-1 Defiant X prototype helicopter.
Defiant X History and Specifications
The Defiant X is a joint venture between Sikorsky, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, targeted toward the Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) and Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) programs. The Defiant made her maiden flight on 21 March 2019. As Boeing’s official info page states:
“DEFIANT X is an advanced utility helicopter and air assault weapon system that can fly low and fast, land quickly, deliver soldiers to the objective area (known as the ‘X’) and get out — all while evading the enemy in complex terrain. It will revolutionize the Army’s air assault capability and be the fastest, most maneuverable and most survivable military helicopter in history…Two sets of composite rotors are stacked atop each other. The rotors’ rigidity, along with the pusher prop on the rear of the helicopter, enables DEFIANT X’s game-changing speed, exceptional maneuverability, and enhanced acceleration and deceleration. DEFIANT X will fly at speeds exceeding 230 knots, twice as fast as the Black Hawk helicopter it is designed to replace.”
Along the way, however, there was trouble in paradise for the Defiant X platform. Back in 2017, the Defiant ran afoul of some manufacturing glitches with its complex rotor blades. As the U.S. Army’s Joint Multi-Role (JMR) then-program manager Dan Bailey was quoted in a September 2017 article by Jen Judson in Defense News, “The challenge has been the manufacturing of the blades, which is an interesting challenge. Some people would think that’s not technology but actually it is.”
Obviously, those bugs were eventually worked out of the system as demonstrated by the 2019 maiden flight, but one cannot help but wonder if that left the Army’s evaluation and acquisition folks feeling leery about the design.
Long story short, the contract win instead went to the Bell V-280 Valor. (Aviation history buffs will instantly associate the Bell name with its iconic Huey helicopter.)
Tyler Rogoway of The Drive provides us with some additional perspective:
“While the ramp appeal of the Defiant may have outmatched the Valor in some people’s eyes, the aircraft and its underlying design concept is far less mature than that of Valor…Nor has SB>1 demonstrator flown nearly as much…That does not mean it should not have been chosen, but balancing capability against risk, and considering how absolutely crucial this program is, could have had an impact on the Army’s decision.”
Valor Vanquishes Defiant for Now, but Boeing/Lockheed Martin Doth Protest
As is typically the case in the world of defense contract bidding, the losing bidder has submitted a protest. As detailed by Forbes Senior Contributor Loren Thompson in a January 2023 article, Lockheed Martin filed a protest with the General Accounting Office (GAO) on 28 December 2022, complaining that the Army had a predetermined outcome for the competition that undermined equal treatment of the offerors; that subjectivity tainted the comparison of competing designs; that some criteria used in selecting a winner were not articulated in the solicitation; and that the claim of a best-value selection was belied by the significantly higher bid that Bell/Textron submitted for a design not materially better than the Sikorsky-Boeing offering.
Time will tell if Lockheed’s act of defiance (bad pun intended) against the contract award decision reaps any rewards.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. If you’d like to pick his brain in-person about his writings, chances are you’ll be able to find him at the Green Turtle Pasadena in Maryland on Friday nights, singing his favorite karaoke tunes.