The Army has tried unsuccessfully for decades to build a new scout helicopter to replace the aging Kiowa Warrior. After canceling two multibillion-dollar helicopter programs, the Army has decided that a conventional rotorcraft is no longer the answer.
The latest plan to replace the Kiowa would involve a mix of new helicopters and unmanned air vehicles. Officials now believe that a manned-unmanned fleet can perform the scout mission more effectively than piloted aircraft alone.
“What you’re seeing in the Army is a new mindset” about unmanned aviation and an appreciation of what it can do, said Tim Owings, the Army’s deputy project manager for unmanned aircraft systems.
The Army issued “requests for information” to industry for a Kiowa replacement. The program, previously known as ARH, or “armed reconnaissance helicopter,” was renamed “armed aerial scout” in recognition that a helicopter alone may not be solution. An analysis of contractors’ proposals is expected be completed within 18 months.
“We’re looking at three options to replace ARH: manned, unmanned and a blend of manned/unmanned,” Owings told National Defense.
The tortured history of the Kiowa replacement goes back to the early 1980s, when the Army launched the Comanche. After tens of billions of dollars spent, that program ended in 2004 and in its place the Army started the ARH. After massive cost overruns, that program was scrapped in 2008. That was when Army officials determined that the advances in unmanned aviation called for a different approach to replacing the Kiowa.
“When ARH was invented there was a lot of skepticism from the manned aviation side about unmanned aviation,” said Owings. “That’s behind us now.”
The breakthrough came during the past couple of years, when Apache helicopter pilots started receiving video feeds from UAVs. “As soon as we put that video in the Apache cockpits, their eyes lit up. For the first time they knew what was behind the building and what they were rolling into,” Owings said. “The fact that we’re so complementary to the manned aviation mission has changed the mindset. There’s a belief that they can rely on unmanned assets and they can get the information they need.
“For the most part a UAV can do the recon mission,” said Owings. Certain tasks still require human operators. One helicopter, for example, could be netted with five UAVs. With more “eyes on the ground,” a helicopter pilot could engage more targets, could even launch weapons from his cockpit off a UAV, said Owings. “You can come up with synergies that would be more cost effective compared to manned or unmanned only solutions.”
But until all these concepts are sorted out and the Army gets around to building new hardware, a scramble is under way to keep the Kiowa Warrior flying. By Army estimates, it could stay in service until 2025.
Bell Helicopter, the manufacturer of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, discontinued the production line years ago in anticipation of a replacement.
Now the company is working with the Army to patch together new and old spare parts into refurbished Kiowas Warriors, which are currently the most active aircraft in the fleet.
The Army is nearing the end of a $1.8 billion program to upgrade the existing Kiowa fleet with modern sensors, better electrical wiring and communications systems.
“If you can fix every crack and void, the aircraft is just as good as new,” said Lt. Col. Scott Rauer, product manager for the Kiowa Warrior.
The Kiowa is a single-engine, two-seat reconnaissance and direct-fire support aircraft that has logged more than 500,000 combat hours between Iraq and Afghanistan, where it battles sand, snow and high altitudes. Maintenance crews work round the clock to keep the fleet operational.
The Army has lost, on average, about five Kiowas per year since the two wars began, and the fleet size has dropped to roughly 330 — short of the authorized size of 368.
The remanufacturing efforts could boost the fleet back to over 360. The Army is converting retired National Guard and Army Reserve helicopters into “wartime replacement aircraft,” said Rauer. Engineers at the Corpus Christi Army Depot, in Texas, have been using spare parts from out-of-commission Kiowas, along with new parts provided by Bell, to modify the cabins of the retired helicopters. They’re converting them into aircraft that are “structurally and electrically common with the Kiowa Warrior we have in the field today,” Rauer said.
For Bell, the challenge is keeping the parts flowing.
“It can fly for untold years,” said Mike Miller, the company’s director for military and business development. Miller was an Army test pilot for the original Kiowa Warriors during the late 80s and early 90s.
“The air frame is still strong,” he said.
In fiscal year 2010, the Army budgeted for six of the refurbished Guard and Reserve aircraft. It is seeking funding for 15 in 2011 and 14 in 2012, Rauer said.
Corpus Christi will assemble the aircraft, but the Army is asking Bell Helicopter to produce the modified cabins. “The government already has the capability to produce all the other things we need: the rotor, the engine, the transmission, the tail boom,” Rauer said.
The centerpiece of the upgrade is a new sensor. Bell engineers are removing the aircraft’s mast-mounted sight, which sits atop the rotor system, and replacing it with a nose-mounted system, Rauer said.
The new sensor provides infrared and full-color images, and it will have more advanced optical zoom capabilities. The upgrade also provides a missile warning system and video-sharing capabilities that allow pilots to tap into surveillance feeds from unmanned aircraft.
In the past, pilots have complained that the Kiowa cannot see overhead, which can be a problem in mountainous regions of Afghanistan because insurgents can shoot at helicopters from above. “We’re trying to get more situational awareness into the cockpit,” Rauer said. “We’ll be able to pipe into any streaming video that’s on the battlefield and within range.”
Another goal is to reduce the Kiowa’s weight by 100 to 300 pounds. The new sensors and communications systems are lighter, as they connect to a central network, rather than each requiring their own hubs. The switch from the mast-mounted to nose-mounted sight alone saves 100 pounds, Rauer said. “You get better performance by losing weight.”
Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan depend on the Kiowa to gather intelligence on roadside bomb threats and to protect forward operating bases, said Col. Ronald F. Lewis, commander of the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade.
“There have been times when we’ve had to wait for some key parts, but the aviation enterprise is working hard to make sure we get parts into theater,” Lewis said.
On the industry side, companies are gearing up for the upcoming “armed aerial scout” competition.
Both Bell and Boeing confirmed that they plan to provide proposals for an armed aerial scout. Boeing officials believe the AH-6 Little Bird, an attack and reconnaissance helicopter, could fill the requirement, said David C. Palm, director of business development and strategy for the company’s rotorcraft division.
Miller said Bell has already started working on its proposal. Based on his experience flying the Kiowa, Miller said his personal opinion is that the Army should go with a platform that’s at least partially manned.
“I still believe the man in the cockpit is the best set of eyes and ears in the battle space,” he said. “A pilot has natural curiosity.”
Rauer said the Army is keeping all options on the table.
“This is a wide-open look at how to fill the capability gap,” he said.