A crucial test to determine whether the Army’s new armed reconnaissance helicopter is ready for production has slipped at least six weeks due to problems integrating a new sensor package, officials said.
It is the latest in a series of delays that has pushed back by one year the Army’s goal of equipping the first unit with 30 helicopters. Army leadership has put the program on the fast track as the current airborne scout, the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, suffers wear and tear from operations in South Asia. No production line remains open to replace them.
Col. Mark Hayes, system manager of reconnaissance/attack at the Army training and doctrine command, told National Defense that the office of the secretary of defense wanted the first unit equipped by the summer of 2009. Senior Army officials, however, have asked for a September 2008 deadline.
The Army won’t be getting its way, Hayes said. He can still equip the first unit by the summer of 2009 if the contractor, Bell Helicopter Textron, “stays on track.”
Hayes told an Association of the United States Army aviation conference in January 2006 that the first unit-equipped milestone was September 2008. The first test flight took place in July at Bell’s Fort Worth, Texas facility, four months after the original March goal.
The promise to put the aircraft aloft in March, along with several other milestones, was not an easy one to make. The inaugural flight took place 12 months after the Army signed the contract with Bell. Typical first flights take place 17 months later, or longer.
Despite the delays, Army and Bell officials point out that the accelerated schedule is still breaking records as far as major weapons systems acquisitions go.
Steve Bolton, vice president of Bell’s U.S. Army programs, said the test flight in July 2006 was a “tremendous accomplishment.” Army representatives have been “side by side” with systems integration teams since day one of the program, he said at this year’s aviation conference.
“I have delivered all the stuff I promised I would deliver,” Hayes said.
Now, it is up to Bell to deliver what it promised to deliver, he told National Defense via email.
“The pressure is squarely on Bell Helicopter to get the aircraft ready for test,” Hayes said. The limited user test, initially scheduled for Feb. 7, will not take place until the sensor package is properly integrated, he said. “It is the most important piece of the mission equipment package,” he added. The test is now scheduled for late this month.
Flir Systems Inc. of Portland, Ore., is supplying the Brite Star II system. Flir and Bell have a team working on the problem, said Bell’s Bolton.
Despite these assurances, Claude Bolton Jr., the Army’s assistant secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology, said he would travel in February to Bell’s headquarters to make inquiries about the program’s progress.
Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, said Bell may be taxed by too many projects. The larger V-22 Osprey and H-1 Huey programs are higher priorities for the company, he said.
“The [ARH] is a very straightforward adaptation of a commercial platform. That’s the good news,” Aboulafia said. “The bad news is that there’s enough systems engineering to strain an engineering resource base that is pinched everywhere.”
Finding human resources, particularly in the management and engineering departments, is tough, Aboulafia said.
Bell also had to abandon plans to improve the performance of the top rotary wing, said Col. Keith Robinson, project manager of armed scout helicopters. The company hoped to integrate a longer blade being developed for its Bell 417 aircraft, but when those plans faltered, the Army went back to its original 35-foot specifications — the same found on the Kiowa. “The current rotor blade meets all of the Army’s requirements for power, speed and range,” Hayes said.
In peacetime, common setbacks such as these may not have been cause for concern, but the Kiowas serving in Iraq are under strain.
“That’s a tired system,” the Army’s Bolton said of the Kiowa. “We have to increase our efforts every day to keep that thing in the air.”
The typical Kiowa in Iraq flies 66 hours per week, four times longer than peacetime operations, Army officials have said.
Paul Bogosian, program executive officer for Army aviation, said the fatigue effects on Kiowa components in a harsh desert environment, along with the increased tempo, have never been tested.
The attrition rate further complicates matters. When a Kiowa is destroyed, none are available to replace it. The Army says it needs 368 Kiowas, but fewer than 350 remain in the inventory. One crashed near Mosul last year resulting in the deaths of two pilots. Sixteen Kiowas have been lost in Iraq, according to a list compiled by the Associated Press. None have been lost in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon’s latest budget proposal calls for the purchase of 37 in 2008 and 64 in 2009. Emergency supplemental budgets will funds replacements for the 16 Kiowas lost in Iraq. Eighteen were funded in 2007
The helicopters and their crews are a vital piece in the fight, Army officials said. They support ground troops negotiating the complex urban environment. They guard convoys and patrol neighborhoods. They have been described as the military equivalent of a police helicopter, helping flush out insurgents just as civilian law enforcement choppers keep an eye on criminals. About 60 operate in Iraq on any given day.
“Many soldiers are alive today because the Kiowas are out there,” Hayes said.
In order to remain on the accelerated schedule, the ARH program has not pushed the envelope as far as performance and new technology, Hayes said.
The frame, like the Kiowa, is based on the Bell 407. Its engine, the Honeywell International HTS900, is an upgrade from the already proven LTS-101. The 2.75-inch rockets and .50 caliber machine gun will be similar to those used on the Kiowa. Of the 880,000 lines of computer code needed for the cockpit, 845,000 have already been written.
Army aviation officials expect the ARH to have superior range and fly time than the Kiowa, although they will be happy if it equals what the legacy aircraft can do, Hayes said. New specifications call for two units to fit on a C-130 transport plane. They must be ready to fly within 15 minutes of landing. Another key upgrade will be a communications suite that is interoperable with other services.
Even though the replacement aircraft are on an accelerated acquisition schedule, the Army must still keep the legacy Kiowa fleet aloft, Robinson said. The one-for-one replacement plan will not be completed until 2016, so Kiowas will be in the inventory for the next decade.
Safety upgrades are ongoing and there are plans to reduce the aircraft’s weight and improve its armoring, Robinson said. The Army hopes to re-equip about 72 per year.
One aircraft that may take some of the operational burden off the Kiowa is the new light utility helicopter, the UH-72A Lakota. However, it will not be armed or permitted to fly in combat zones.
The Lakota is a multi-purpose helicopter that can be used for reconnaissance during disasters or non-combat scenarios. It is further along in the acquisition cycle and could free up Kiowas being used domestically.
The Army chose EADS North America, a division of the European manufacturer, as the prime contractor. It was the first win for the company in the U.S. military helicopter market, although it has sold other models to U.S. law enforcement agencies and the Coast Guard.
The Army has ordered 39 Lakotas to be delivered this year. The first came off the production line at EADS’ Columbus, Miss., plant in December. The budget proposal calls for the purchase of 44 Lakotas in 2008, 44 in 2008 and 42 in 2009.
“The stars aligned. We had an aircraft that fell into the [Army’s] requirements,” said Randy Hutcherson, vice president of EADS’ North American rotorcraft programs.
Because the aircraft is based on a proven design — the EC145 manufactured by EADS subsidiary, Eurocopter — and it will not require armaments or armor, the first unit will be equipped by May, he said. Full-rate production will begin in June. It comes with Federal Aviation Administration certification for domestic operations and will be used by the National Guard. For the model’s lifetime, contractors instead of Army personnel will carry out maintenance. No “green shirts” will be involved. That is a paradigm shift for Army helicopters, officials said.
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