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'Affordability' Will Dictate Army's Armed Aerial Scout Decision
By Dan Parsons

Army officials are on the cusp of making a final recommendation for how the service should modernize its aging scout helicopter fleet. A decision on whether the Army should buy new aircraft or patch up the old Kiowa Warriors is anything but made, the service’s top aviation acquisition officer said Dec. 11.

Published reports have suggested that Army officials already have decided to propose the acquisition of new aircraft, following a series of flight demonstrations by competing contractors that concluded in October. Army aviation officials reportedly have briefed Assistant Secretary for Acquisition Heidi Shyu on the results of those demonstrations.

At issue is whether to put OH-58 aerial scout helicopters through a service life extension program, or start a new procurement. Companies would propose commercially available designs to replace the aircraft. Crosby and industry sources said affordability would likely decide the issue, regardless of what aviation officials' wishes might be.

Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, program executive officer for Army aviation, is scheduled to deliver a recommendation to Army Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III on Dec. 18. Crosby did not elaborate on what his recommendation to Austin would be. He did say he was prepared to offer Austin “good, sound, viable options,” for an armed aerial scout.

Still, Crosby was careful to mention that nothing has been set in stone. A final decision likely will not come until next year, he added.

“I’d love to tell you we’re going to walk in there and [Austin] is going to say ‘so let it be done,' but I can’t anticipate that,” Crosby said Dec 11 at an Army Aviation Association of America conference in Arlington, Va. “Our plan was to get a decision next week. Can I guarantee that we’ll get one? No," he asserted.

Crosby said his recommendation may carry weight, but would have to be considered in the context of the Army’s broader acquisition priorities. “I’m looking at this from an aviation portfolio,” Crosby said. “When the chief and the vice chief and the secretary [of the Army] make these decisions … they’ve got to look at the entire Army’s strategy. And sometimes what I think may be the best option in aviation may impact other portfolios. So their decision may be different than what I recommend and we’ve got to be big enough to understand that.”

The final decision could come in January, when Crosby is scheduled to present his recommendations for an affordable AAS program to Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall. That meeting was pushed into 2013 because of scheduling conflicts, Crosby said. He said there is still a faint possibility that it could occur before the end of the calendar year.

“That doesn’t mean Ms. Shyu won't meet with him and they make a decision,” Crosby said. “Sometimes those discussions happen without us even knowing.”

Industry officials said they are aware of the developments, but skeptical that Army officials are backing a plan to buy new helicopters. “We understand that they are still wrestling with the issue of affordability,” an industry source told National Defense.

The Army is expected eventually to buy about 500 aircraft for between $13 million and $15 million per copy if it chooses not to upgrade the OH-58 Kiowa. Most of the competing companies insisted that their offered aircraft would land within that range.

The issue of sequestration cuts will have an impact on whether the Army is able to afford a new aircraft, officials said.

Crosby called the armed aerial scout the Army’s “number one need, today.” This is the third time the service has attempted to replace the Kiowa, which has been in service since 1969. Officials have moved deliberately and cautiously, considering only commercially available aircraft as a means to save cost and avoid another cancellation.

There is much at stake for competing companies, some of which have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into developing their armed scout offerings. EADS North America designed its AAS 72-X on its own dime. Sikorsky did the same with its S-97 Raider aircraft, though a working prototype will not be ready until at least 2014. Bell is offering an upgraded version of the Kiowa and Boeing has developed a scout version of its AH-6 Little Bird. MD Helicopters, and AgustaWestland will also be in the running if a competition is held.

Regardless of what path Crosby and other Army officials suggest, the approval of senior Pentagon officials is anything but guaranteed. “They may not take my recommendation at all,” Crosby said. “It happens all the time.”

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.


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