The U.S. Army is seeking to modernize its aging attack and reconnaissance
helicopter fleet to meet Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki's
vision for a lighter, more deployable force. But for the next several
years, aviators will have to depend heavily on platforms of legacy
rotorcraft, while awaiting delivery of the RAH-66 Comanche, according
to a recent Army report.
The Comanche currently is scheduled for deployment starting in
2007. Until then, the Army expects to rely on the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior-an
updated version of the helicopter used in the Persian Gulf War-to
fill the void. Targeted for immediate retirement is the Vietnam-era
According to the report, the Army plans to build its helicopter
fleet around four rotorwing aircraft systems, the Comanche, AH-64D
Apache Longbow, UH-60L+ Blackhawk and CH-47F Chinook. The report
was required by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which wanted
a detailed explanation of the Army modernization plan.
Central to this plan is the Comanche. The Army has stated its intention
to buy 1,213 of these choppers over a 25-year period at a cost of
As they worked on their plan, Army aviators realized that the clock
continued to tick on the latest remanufacture of Kiowas that are
intended to carry most of the weight for light-attack, reconnaissance
assignments. Until a sufficient number of upgraded Kiowas are ready,
Apache and Blackhawk utility helicopters will assist those that
are in service. There currently are 387 Kiowa Warriors in the Army's
fleet. This number is reportedly down from 411 because of mechanical
According to the report, 40 percent of the helicopter fleet presently
is not capable of completing its assignments due to mechanical problems
associated with parts and age degradation in UH-1 Hueys, AH-1 Cobras
and OH-58A/C Kiowa Warriors.
These legacy rotorcrafts have a combined average age of 29 years,
according to the report. It has been determined that these systems
either cannot perform their missions, when called upon to do so,
or else are rated at high risk should they be used, the Army aviation
With AH-64As and OH-58Ds tapped to assume the transitional burden,
the plan goes on to call for retirement of all Cobras, early versions
of Kiowa and Hueys by 2004 at the latest.
Also included in this 40 percent is the Apache fleet. The Apaches
experienced several groundings over the past year, at least partly
because of mechanical problems, which led to the entire fleet, being
down for a time.
Crashes that occurred in Albania during preparations for a possible
land invasion into Kosovo, following investigations, were blamed
on pilot error and inexperience. On the heels of these incidents
came the discovery of possible bearing deficiencies in the main
rotor gear boxes that ultimately caused officials to stand down
the entire fleet of Apaches until mechanics could analyze just how
critical the problem might actually be. As it turned out, Apaches
were flying once again by early 2000.
When Comanches begin to arrive, the Kiowas will be transferred
to lower priority units and the reserves, explained Brig. Gen. Joseph
L. Bergantz, program manager for the Comanche, in a phone interview
with National Defense.
The latest version of the Kiowa is expected to remain active until
a sufficient number of Comanches arrive in 2013, when the Kiowas
will be nearing the 30 year-old mark.
Some Army aviators are uneasy about increased reliance on such
old vehicles, said Army officials. However, Joe Cribbins-a consultant
on aviation safety and logistics at Dyncorp in Reston, Va., widely
known as "the father of Army aviation"-is pragmatic. "We
have the Kiowa, so we have to use it," Cribbins told National
Defense. "There is no other choice. The Kiowa will never be
an Apache in any form," he said.
He believes that the remanufactured Kiowa represents a considerable
improvement over earlier versions, when it comes to avionics and
safety features, he said.
Army aviation needs the Apache in whichever form it can get it,"
especially the Ds [Longbows]," he continued.
The Longbow comes outfitted with an advanced fire control radar
and avionics suite, which enables pilots to rapidly detect, classify,
prioritize and engage both stationary and moving targets in all
types of weather and from standoff ranges. This Longbow millimeter-wave
fire control radar has more than doubled accuracy for hitting moving
targets. In active "dirty" battlefield situations, millimeter-wave
fire control radar continues to work when other kinds of optical
systems fail, according to the Army. Longbow can detect and classify
more than 128 targets and then prioritize the 16 most dangerous.
This information then can be transmitted to other strike aircraft
even as Longbow initiates the attack-all in less than 30 seconds.
Not only can Longbow fly faster than the A model, it also flies
further and boasts a vertical rate of climb of 1,475 feet per minute,
As far as the modernization plan is concerned, Cribbins emphasized
that it is more than just about equipment upgrades and acquisition
of new platforms, all of which are flashy and get a lot of attention,
"It's also about reorganization of aviation and the creation
of a new training program," he explained. "Pilots and
crews will have to know how and where they fit into the new plan.
This way, they will know exactly what's expected of them."
To enhance safety and reliability, aviators already have initiated
a set of improvements for the Kiowas, called the Safety Enhancement
Program (SEP). As planned, SEP will provide 273 Kiowas with improved
engines, digitized mission equipment packages, cockpit airbags and
crashworthy seats. Work on the first 177 choppers is anticipated
to be complete by the end of 2001.
Instead of the usual rear rotor blade, Comanche comes equipped with
a tail fan, designed specifically for safer operation. The tail
fan is protected by a circular shield that will guard against the
blades becoming entangled with objects such as tree limbs and causing
a crash, Bergantz pointed out. There are a total of eight paddles
included in the blade configuration, compared to the usual four.
Several of the eight paddles could be shot off and the aircraft
would be able to continue flying, he noted. That is definitely not
the case, he said, with older tail rotor designs which have only
More than 20 different points in the body of the Comanche are additionally
reinforced with armor to protect critical components and crew, Bergantz
said. There are no "push and pull [control] tubes" on
the Comanche, a standard on previous helicopter models, he explained.
The Comanche will depend on lines of fiber optic cable for digitized
operation and control of the aircraft. The engine is engineered
to run dry-without oil-for up to 30 minutes.
The Comanche doesn't drift while hovering in high crosswinds, the
way a 58 does, according to Darrell Harrison, deputy program manager
for the Comanche. To prevent motor stall when starting up, engineers
have designed a mixing chamber that blows hot start-up gas away
from air intake manifolds. In the past, Harrison said, the engine
would suck up too much residual exhaust gas into the intake. This
upset the fuel air mixture and contributed to the inability to get
off the ground in a timely fashion.
Comanche has a low-observable profile and more advanced stealth
qualities, Harrison added. It also comes with a closed-air filtration,
nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC) environment system for the crew,
he noted. Kiowa crews-without such a system-were required to fly
in protective suits and respirators. They would be limited to one
hour of operation before they would have to land and get out of
their suits because of the amount of body heat that builds up inside
protective gear, Harrison said. To push on would increase the danger
that a crewmember might faint from heat exhaustion.
Other safety improvements on the Comanche include:
Bergantz, however, argues that critics of the program aren't looking
at the total picture, when it comes to the flexible support role
the Comanche actually offers. He explained that any bolt-on would
most likely be used in support of those Army units that will remain
heavy-for instance, tank outfits.
"It is important to remember that the [objective force] Army
will contain both [heavy and light units]," Bergantz pointed
out. "Covert operations will continue to depend on stealth
for success." He added that bolt-on armaments could also incorporate
Besides providing reconnaissance for both light and heavy ground
forces, the Comanche will be expected to provide some of the lethality
that inevitably will be lost to certain units as a result of the
lightening process, Bergantz continued.
In its internal weapons bays, the Comanche can be armed with Stinger,
Starstreak or Mistral air-to-air missiles. It also can be fitted
with air-to-ground missiles such as TOW II, Hot II or Longbow Hellfire.
Other munition options include Sura D 81mm, Snora 81 mm and Hydra
70 rockets. The configuration of armaments is variable, depending
on Comanche's assignment. For example, each door can hold either
three Hellfire or six Stinger missiles. Up front, the Comanche has
a stowable three-barrel 20mm Gatling gun. This gun is capable of
firing 750 to 1,500 rounds per minute. Optional "stub wings,"
for more firepower, can be added when the Comanche is supporting
Deployment calls for a full cavalry squadron to be fielded by 2008.
A Plan is Born
Planning began for the Comanche nearly 17 years ago. During that
time the program has undergone three or four major restructuring
efforts as funds were being shifted away to other purposes, Harrison
This is one of the reasons why Congress decided to step in and
require a detailed blueprint from the Army on exactly how officials
planned to modernize, said John Barnes, an aviation expert for the
Senate. "We became concerned about the program just plodding
along," explained Barnes.
When the second prototype arrived at the United Technologies Flight
Test Facility in Florida, the Army already had planned to park it
for a year, because it didn't have the money to flight test it,
Barnes said. "It was time to conduct more robust flight tests,"
he recalled. "While we believe in modeling and simulation,
we ultimately wanted [actual] flight time."
Appropriators, reviewing the program, look, first of all, to see
how much has been accomplished, as an indicator of the level of
a service's commitment for the program, Barnes said.
The Army, up until this stage, has not put enough money behind
the Comanche to bring the program to fruition, he indicated. "Nothing
is free and clear," observed Barnes. "Everything remains
As a result of the plan, however, Barnes thinks that aviators are
more focused, have gotten the message, and are working to make themselves
more relevant to the needs of the 21st century Army.
Senators refer to the Comanche as "the future combat platform
for the Army," Barnes said. He explained the technology that
has gone into the Comanche will have far-reaching implications that
will affect other combat systems beyond helicopter platforms.
The Comanche's recent attainment of Milestone II permits the program
to move on to the engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD)
In June, the Pentagon entered into an EMD contract for 13 Comanches
worth $3.1 billion, according Sikorsky Aircraft, of Stratford, Conn.,
which is building the helicopter in partnership with The Boeing
Company, located in Philadelphia and Mesa, Ariz. For the EMD phase,
each Comanche will cost approximately $23.8 million per copy. Costs
should drop to an estimated $17 million "flyaway cost,"
once full-scale production of the rotorcraft is underway, said Bergantz.
Aviation officials point out that the Comanche is capable of self-deployment.
They can fly into theaters of operation. This makes them a natural
match for the lightning-strike elements of the force, officials
said. The Comanche is able to fly 1,200 nautical miles without refueling
in about 10 hours. On scouting missions, it can provide tactical
targeting information and prioritization information for artillery
and air strikes.
"The Comanche can talk to everybody," by using an integrated
communication and navigation system, Harrison said. "This way,
we know where we are, and information on situation awareness is
made immediately available to the commander." This is an important
capability that the Comanche has, and the Kiowa doesn't, he added.
Another important element in the Army's plan is the AH-64D Apache
Longbow. The Longbow is an upgraded, highly digitized version of
the AH-64A. According to Army officials, there currently are 743
Apaches in the heavy-attack helicopter fleet. More than 500 of these
are slated to be upgraded to the Longbow variant, with the remainder
being transferred to the strategic reserve, according to Col. Howard
T. Bramblett, program manager for the Apache. "We can't afford
to have two different versions of the same aircraft sitting around,"
For budgetary reasons, the Army has delayed the upgrades of 29
AH-64As that were slated for Longbow conversion, thus reducing the
number of Longbows to 501. Top aviation officials remain hopeful
that the Apache program might eventually "buy back" to
a 600-plus fleet level, said a source close to the aviation community.
But that is no certainty at this time, the source warned.
Barnes attributed the budget problems to internal Army decisions
on how money is spent. Traditionally, Barnes said, the Army has
relied too much on the operation and maintenance (O&M) side
of the budget, and not enough on acquisition. This practice resulted
in O&M accounts being raided to pay for unfunded requirements
and other unforeseen expenditures.
Even today, Barnes said, there isn't language that prohibits tapping
of O&M accounts to shore up monetary short-falls in other areas.
Asked if money appropriated for aviation had to be spent on aviation,
Barnes responded that he didn't know of any such requirement.
The Inhofe Amendment
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has an amendment attached to the 2001
Defense Authorization Act, assigning the General Accounting Office
(GAO) to look into problems with Apache spare parts quality and
supply and Army aviation's unfunded requirements.
A review by the GAO could go a long way toward correcting what
he believes is a negative impression of a proven and extraordinary
aircraft, Bramblett said. "With retention and recruiting problems
that we are experiencing today," he said. "It would be
foolish for the Army to cut corners and send crews out to operate
The Apache has "taken a black eye" through no real fault
of its own, Bramblett said.
In spite of criticism, both inside and outside the Army, Apache
still remains popular with soldiers, and possesses considerable
appeal in the foreign sales market, he said. Within the Army aviation
community, Bramblett added, Apache remains "the weapons platform
Barnes said the Senate would continue to monitor the progress of
Army aviation modernization. Judging by the first returns, he thinks
that aviation will be prepared when the 21st century force is ready
to move out.