ATLANTA— With one test flight crash, two major delays, cost overruns and Congress threatening to zero out its budget, the armed reconnaissance helicopter has been tagged with the “troubled program” label.
Troubled or not, senior Army officials have vowed to field a replacement for the aging OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter as soon as possible. The ARH-70A delays have pushed the Kiowa retirement date back by five years to 2017.
The Army issued a “stop work” order to prime contractor Bell Helicopter Inc. earlier this year, then rescinded it allowing Bell to push on and pay for some of the development at its own risk. While doing so, it had to present a plan to the office of the secretary of defense explaining how it would put the program back on track. At the end of May, the Pentagon allowed Bell to proceed.
While Army officials have blamed the contractor for failing to meet the deadlines, the latest delay may be of the service’s own making.
Col. Mark Hayes, system manager of reconnaissance/attack at the Army Training and Doctrine Command, said at a 2006 aviation conference that the program would not employ cutting-edge technology. It would use proven systems in order to meet the aggressive four-year acquisition schedule needed to replace the Kiowas. That was the case with the armaments, Honeywell International HTS900 engine, Bell 407 frame and Rockwell Collins avionics system.
But that isn’t the case with FLIR Inc.’s Bright Star II sensor and targeting package, said Col. Keith Robinson, armed reconnaissance helicopter program manager. The sensor includes an advanced laser designator/rangefinder and thermal imaging system.
The latest hurdle is the building of two turrets, or balls, for FLIR’s system, which includes the target acquisition sight system. One has been built, but work must be completed on a second to show that the manufacturing process can be repeated.
“FLIR is developing a new ball. It’s a very advanced sensor. It’s something that’s very leading edge … and we’re having typical development issues,” Robinson said.
He singled out the target tracker as the main problem.
Hayes, in an e-mail response to National Defense, said “Bell competed for the ARH contract with a clear set of technologies. One of these was the new FLIR Bright Star II sensor, which was not yet a qualified aircraft component. … We knew this at source selection and proceeded because it was expected to be low risk and value added to ARH.”
Hayes qualified his 2006 statements by saying that he was referring to unproven technologies added during the system development and demonstration phase.
“Adding a new and not yet qualified component will slow down development and could potentially hurt the overall program. Once we get into ARH production, we will always review new and emerging technologies to improve the aircraft capabilities,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, director of Army aviation, refuted any notion that the Army changed its requirements. “There has not been one change in requirements,” since the program was conceived, he told reporters.
Robinson said two balls have to show at least 85 percent of the capabilities spelled out in the requirements. Armaments integration had also not been carried out yet, he said.
The goal to equip the first ARH unit has been pushed back at least eight months and is currently set for May 2010, said Robinson.
The Army initially set a deadline to equip the first unit with 30 aircraft in September 2008. That was even sooner than the office of the secretary of defense wanted. It would have settled for summer of 2009, and as of January this year, Hayes said the Army and Bell were still on course to meet that date.
The sensor issues have pushed the so-called “limited user test” back to the fourth quarter of this year. Both Bell and the Army have refused to set a specific date. Until the aircraft passes that test, the company cannot begin low-rate production.
Paul Bogosian, program executive officer for Army aviation, said the limited user test is a critical milestone to show that the program is back on schedule.
“We will establish a baseline for cost and schedule,” he said. “We will watch very carefully any deviations to that and we will respond accordingly.”
Meanwhile, Bell is quick to point out the successes it achieved while simultaneously developing, integrating and building the first models.
“We have been relatively successful taking a [commercial-off-the-shelf] aircraft, converting it into a military system, and in short order, building three of them,” said Bob Ellithorpe, Bell’s ARH program manager.
Bell successfully passed two other tests this year. It showed the helicopter’s ability to communicate with other platform and was able to load two aircraft into a C-130, then unload and prepare them for flight faster than the required 15 minutes, Ellithorpe said.
David Strong, vice president of marketing for FLIR Systems Inc., said the program is miles ahead of a typical development program that takes up to a decade to complete. “This program is way ahead of the normal cycle. We’re knocking off problems right and left.”
The political pressure may stem from Army officials who continue to state the urgency of replacing the Kiowa.
“We should have retired [the Kiowa] last year as far as I’m concerned,” Gen. Richard Cody, Army vice chief of staff, said at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual symposium in Atlanta.
The need to put the ARH on the fast track stems from the service’s inability to produce the Comanche, Cody told reporters. The Comanche would have performed the same scouting and light attack duties now performed by the Kiowa. The $39 billion program, 21 years in the making, did not produce an aircraft, and was cancelled in 2004. The United States was by then in two shooting wars without a replacement for the Kiowa.
The typical Kiowa is logging 100 flight hours per month in Iraq. Its production line was shut down years ago. When one goes down, there are none to replace it. Keeping them in the inventory poses risks for the crews, Army officials said. Safety upgrades are in the works to keep them flying until 2017, Robinson said.
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