The Army’s oldest and busiest scout helicopters were supposed to be retired by now. Instead, maintenance crews scramble to keep them operating around the clock, in two theaters of war.
The OH-58A Kiowa helicopter was first deployed to Vietnam in 1969. It later became the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior — a single-engine, two-seat, reconnaissance and direct-fire support aircraft. The Army had planned to replace it with a sophisticated “armed reconnaissance helicopter,” but the troubled program is on hold. The Kiowas will now be around for years to come.
Kiowas have flown more than 400,000 hours in Iraq, or 72.2 monthly hours per craft, the Army said. In Afghanistan, the helicopter has flown nearly 39,000 hours, or 80.4 monthly flight hours per vehicle. That workload is triple what the aircraft would fly before the wars, said Army Chief Warrant Officer Deren Cook, aviation maintenance officer for the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade. Cook has flown the Kiowa for 16 years.
“Keeping them going at this pace has presented some challenges, especially for the maintainers,” he said in an email from Iraq.
Cook said that the age of the fleet is making it far more difficult for crews to repair the rotorcraft because parts are hard to find and even routine maintenance tasks are becoming far more labor intensive.
“I’m seeing more sheet metal repairs being done these days than I did 10 years ago,” said Cook. Problems with rivets and sealing are also more frequent, he added. “There is no denying the airframes are old but with proper preventative maintenance I believe they have a few more years left in them.”
Airframe repairs take longer to complete, said Cook. This creates complications for units that depend on these aircraft for their missions.
Another concern is excess weight in the aircraft, which undermines engine performance. Cook said the Army should invest in technologies that could help bring down the weight of the Kiowa. “I think one of the biggest improvements that can be made is to increase the power-to-weight ratio,” said Cook. “With today’s technology, in my opinion, weight reduction initiatives could be fielded more rapidly.”
Under the Army’s so-called “reset” program, a unit’s aircraft receive major overhauls at government- or contractor-owned depots after the unit returns from a 12- or 15-month deployment. Some aircraft go even longer in between resets as some are now left in Iraq for the next unit to “fall in on,” said Cook. For the Kiowa, there is no specific flight-hour requirement to reset an airframe.
He said the Kiowas would benefit from more frequent “mini-resets” and additional maintenance before the unit deploys. “Once the unit has their aircraft out of reset, I’ve noticed they tend to fly them hard in preparation for the next deployment,” Cook said. “If there was the capability to do a mini reset the last couple months prior to deployment, a unit would arrive in theater with basically refreshed aircraft.”
Despite their resilience, the Kiowas have suffered their share of war losses. A spate of crashes in Iraq — one in November and two more in January — was a reminder that there are no more aircraft to replace the ones lost.
The Army’s fleet, however, is large — with 340 Kiowas in the current inventory. According to the Army, it has lost 20 aircraft. The service said it plans to invest at least $1 billion to keep the fleet going until its retirement in 2020.
The Government Accountability Office reported in January that the heightened demand for the Kiowa significantly “increased the need for repairs and replacements through procurement.”
GAO estimated that the Army is short 128 parts — valued at $1.2 million – that are needed to maintain the helicopter.
Among the toughest components to replace is the mast mounted sight — a device similar to a submarine’s periscope that allows the pilot to observe a target while hovering behind a barrier.
“It’s old enough that it’s difficult to sustain now, because the parts aren’t easy to come by,” said Army Brig. Gen. William Crosby, program executive officer for aviation, in an interview at an Association of the U.S. Army conference in January.
It is still uncertain when the Kiowa Warrior’s replacement will arrive. Last year, the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter program was shelved because of cost overruns. The Army had planned to acquire more than 500 aircraft from Bell Helicopter. It terminated the program in October 2008. But the Army still has $942 million in its 2009-2011 budget to possibly restart the program, pay Bell’s cancellation fees and fund a “service life extension program” for the Kiowa.
The longer it takes for the Army to buy a successor, the more money will be shifted to the Kiowa, Crosby said.
The service is currently evaluating industry responses to a recent request for information, which will be considered while it revises its requirements for the future ARH.
For now, the Kiowa must make do with maintenance and modifications that will occur under the Army’s “Life Cycle 2020” — a program to add improved weapons systems, survivability equipment and sensors. More than two-thirds of the fleet has been upgraded under a separate safety enhancement program that is overseen by manufacturer Bell Helicopter. Changes include an improved engine and better computer control systems.
As part of a nearly $800 million “mid-term bridging strategy,” the Army is rebuilding the Kiowa fleet until a replacement is fielded. A total of 27 aircraft are currently being modified under the current contract, said Thomas Dolney, spokesman for Bell Helicopter.
The Kiowa will be fitted with an improved thermal imaging sensor and add an AAR 57 missile warning system — which detects infrared guided missiles — and a laser detector AVR-2B — which spots enemy target designators, giving pilots more time to take evasive action, said Lt. Col. Scott Rauer, product manager for the Kiowa Warrior.
Avenger weapons systems — lightweight surface-to-air missile and gun platforms for ground vehicles — will be adapted for flight. The weapons can double the current rate of fire, Rauer said. The cockpit will receive a new display system and the Rolls Royce engines will be tweaked.
The Kiowa can designate targets for precision-guided munitions that are fired from aircraft such as Apache helicopters, or ground-based systems. It can be armed with Stinger and Hellfire missiles, 2.75-inch rockets, or a .50 caliber machine gun.
The Army wants the aircraft to be able to operate at 6,000 feet, instead of its current capability of 4,000 feet, Rauer said.
As National Defense went to press, Cook’s crew was preparing to move the majority of its maintenance operations to the night shift because of Iraq’s intense daytime heat. That presents difficulties, as crews will need extra lighting equipment, he said.
“It’s going to get stupid hot here in the next few months,” Cook said.