Bell eyes facility expansion even as new Army helicopter contract draws scrutiny
The Dallas Morning News February 27, 2023
WASHINGTON — Fort Worth-based Bell is laying the foundation for new facilities in Grand Prairie after its new tilt-rotor V-280 Valor won a competition for the U.S. Army’s next long-range assault aircraft.
Those preparations come despite an ongoing review of the selection process by a key congressional watchdog agency and calls by some on Capitol Hill to further scrutinize the rationale behind Bell’s selection.
At stake is the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft, or FLRAA, program that the Army initiated in 2019 as a successor to its iconic UH-60 Black Hawk. The Army announced in December it was awarding the initial contract to Bell for its V-280 Valor.
Bell registered plans with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation earlier this month to build a new $20 million, 37,775-square-foot building in Grand Prairie. The project name is “FLRAA DSTL” — the second part stands for Drive Systems Test Lab.
The filing indicates a start date of June 1 and a completion date of March 30, 2024.
Bell officials declined to provide further details on the prospective facility as the company awaits review of the selection process by the Government Accountability Office.
Sikorsky, which is owned by Lockheed Martin, triggered that review when it filed a challenge in late December. The GAO has 100 days to review the challenge, which means it should issue its decision by April 7.
That decision is not binding, but it’s rare for an agency not to follow one of GAO’s bid protest recommendations.
Scott Donnelly, CEO of Bell’s parent company Textron, expressed confidence last month during a quarterly earnings call, saying an enormous amount of work went into the project and the Army made the right choice.
“It’s been an unbelievably robust process,” Donnelly said. “It’s hard for me to understand what flaw would have been in the process.”
Asked directly by one analyst what viable argument might be made against Bell’s selection, Donnelly responded concisely: “I don’t think there would be one.”
The short-term value of the contract is up to $1.3 billion, but the Army has indicated the total value could reach well into the tens of billions over the life of the program.
On the earnings call, Donnelly declined to give too many specifics about what the company expects to make off the program in future years, but said it would be a “terrific boon” for business.
“We’ll expect to see it continue to grow and turn into better margins as you get into production programs and foreign military sales and all the things that we would expect will come along with a successful FLRAA program,” Donnelly said.
The Black Hawk has been the backbone of Army aviation for decades but the service wanted a new aircraft that would fly twice as fast and twice as far, particularly as it looks to stay relevant in the increasingly important Pacific theater.
Bell has touted the capabilities of its V-280 Valor prototype that features a tilt-rotor design combining the vertical takeoff and hovering ability of a helicopter with the speed and range of an airplane.
That approach beat out a competing Sikorsky and Boeing team that offered the Army a compound rotor aircraft called the Defiant X.
The Army says it followed a “deliberate and disciplined process in evaluating proposals to ensure rigorous review and equitable treatment of both competitors.”
But after speaking with Army officials, the losing team disagreed and filed its protest.
According to Forbes, that challenge includes claims the Army made up its mind from the beginning to go with the tilt-rotor design, that it used criteria not included in the initial solicitation of bids and that the army’s best-value determination isn’t consistent with a much higher bid submitted by Bell.
The dispute also has drawn the attention of Capitol Hill, where Connecticut’s congressional delegation members say the Army has repeatedly rejected their requests for more information about how it reached the decision to go with Bell.
Sikorsky is headquartered in Connecticut’s 3rd congressional district, which is represented by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the top Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
DeLauro issued a statement earlier this month expressing outrage at the lack of information.
“Lawmakers, hard-working families in Connecticut, and Sikorsky’s manufacturing workers deserve to be informed on how this decision was made and why,” DeLauro said. “This is impacting labor and jobs right here in Stratford, Connecticut.”
The committee’s chairwoman is Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who has Bell’s headquarters in her backyard.
The congressional dynamics gave the Army plenty of reason to be careful about its process for awarding the contract, said Gregory Sanders, deputy director and fellow at the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’ll come down to some extent to just how the Army can explain the factors they chose, why they chose them and whether they stayed true to the original criteria,” Sanders said of the Sikorsky protest. “And if the Army can do that, then they’ll probably be in a pretty good position.”
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