Army Pushes Forward With Troubled Scout Helicopter
Despite a string of delays and billions of dollars in cost increases, the Army has regained confidence in its ARH-70A armed reconnaissance helicopter.
Price and scheduling problems nearly forced Army leadership to scrap the new scout helicopter last year. But now, as the service carves out a revised strategy for the troubled aircraft, it has set the program back on track, officials say.
“We’re on a glide path for fielding the ARH in accordance with the new plan,” says Col. Bob Quackenbush, deputy director of Army aviation.
The Army has readjusted its testing and development schedule to get the helicopter into the field by 2011, two years later than originally planned, Quackenbush tells National Defense. It has also increased oversight and plans to require more regular program updates to prevent future problems.
The Army believes that the aircraft, manufactured by Bell Helicopter, is still the best option to replace the aging OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter, which has been heavily stressed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“If we continue the development and address the shortcomings, I’m 100 percent positive that this is the reconnaissance system that the Army needs for the next 20 years,” says Col. Mark Hayes, capability manager for reconnaissance/attack helicopters at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.
The service’s renewed faith in the ARH stems in large part from the “successful” results of the so-called limited user test that was conducted in November, Hayes says.
The critical assessment — which is the gateway to low-rate initial production — had been delayed twice because Bell had problems integrating a sensor package called the target acquisition sight system, says Lisa Eichorn, spokeswoman for the Army aviation warfighting center.
Hayes would not give specific details about the test results because they had not been published, but sounded positive about the program’s future.
“For the rest of this year, you will see us build on the success of limited user test one … I will tell you that for the systems we looked at, those items that we tested, this is a pretty dang robust armored reconnaissance machine.”
Testing delays were a result of the Army’s failed attempt to quickly field a helicopter based on commercial-off-the-shelf technology, or COTS. Program officials and industry executives originally thought they could dramatically cut costs and shave off precious development years by using a commercial aircraft.
The original concept for ARH was to take Bell’s commercial 407 single engine light helicopter and add features that would make it suitable for combat, says Michael Blake, Bell’s vice president of customer solutions. Those add-ons included a larger engine, a different transmission, the targeting sensor, armaments and other combat survivability gear.
But now, four years after the program was first conceived, both the Army and Bell have acknowledged it was a costly experiment.
The issue with the COTS concept, Blake says, was a “lack of appreciation” for the differences between commercial and military aircraft. He explains that Army officials were trying to take an aircraft with Federal Aviation Administration certification and convert it to a combat qualified helicopter without knowing how to do it.
Army personnel involved with the program were relying on their Comanche experience, Blake said, and didn’t take into account the disparity between FAA and military approval processes.
For example, he said during an interview, “I’m not going to do evasive maneuvers for the FAA, but you may have to do it for the Army.”
Comanche was a previous scout helicopter program that failed to produce an aircraft after 21 years in development and was killed in 2004.
Hayes agrees, saying that no one knew how to solve those problems.
“It just turned out to be more complex to turn a commercial aircraft into a military aircraft than we had envisioned. It had never been done before; we gave it our best shot.”
In the wake of multiple delays, the aircraft’s price tag soared to $10.8 million apiece, more than double the original $5 million estimate, Quackenbush says. The service requested $574.5 million in the fiscal year 2009 budget to fund 28 aircraft, according to budget documents.
The Army says it will buy 512 helicopters.
Officials frustrated with rising costs and scheduling problems nearly fired Bell last year, but after hashing out development issues with the manufacturer, decided to stick with the helicopter.
“Rather than scrapping the program and starting over, it was very clear to us that if we stay the course and keep the program healthy, that that was the shortest way to achieve the capability that we need for the cost that it’s going to take,” Hayes says.
The Army was scheduled to present its revised plan to the defense acquisition executive to receive final approval to move on, he says. It expected to hold a meeting in March. Even before getting the green light, Hayes was confident about the Army’s new strategy.
“I’m here to tell you that the requirements are sound, the requirements are validated. We’re going to close those gaps as soon as we can.”
Blake is also convinced that ARH is healthy again and points to the limited user test as proof.
During that test, he said, “the flyability was proven out and some of the basic systems … I think we’ve got it right now.”
Bell believes the new development plan that is being worked out with the Army lowers the risk of having any more problems, he says.
As part of its revised strategy, Bell plans to whittle down the original commercial aircraft to its basic airframe and integrate the combat components from the ground up. The airframe will be built at Bell’s plant in Fort Worth, Texas.
“All the war fighting configuration will be done there. So the rotor components, the mission equipment will all be done in one place on a line that’s been vetted out pretty well,” Blake says.
Quackenbush notes that Bell has put a lot of work and investment into the new production line. Bell officials have also strengthened relationships with the Army and oversight within the company, he says.
As the program gets back on track, Army officials will now have to struggle with keeping the Kiowa Warrior in the air longer than anticipated.
The Kiowa was originally slated for retirement in 2016, but because of delays with ARH, it will be flying beyond the next decade, says Michael Herbst, the Army’s deputy project manager for armed scout helicopters.
“We’re going to be supporting this aircraft until 2020 now,” he says.
Herbst says the service will have to contend with Kiowa’s weight and obsolescence issues. Right now, the focus is on the helicopter’s processors and cockpit, which are quickly aging.
Hayes says the Army has also decided to fund a costly “safety enhancement program” for the Kiowa.
Although the Army is “not happy” about the price of Kiowa upgrades, Quackenbush says, Congress has been supportive because it understands the importance of keeping those aircraft flying.
Meanwhile, the Army is scrambling to fix technical problems with its new UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopter, an aircraft that is expected to take some of the burden off the Kiowa.
Built by EADS North America, the helicopter was also based on a commercial-off-the-shelf configuration, but didn’t suffer the same problems as the ARH because it did not need combat qualification, says Theresa Barton, capabilities manager for lift at the Army Training and Doctrine Command. The National Guard and the Army will use Lakota for mostly domestic missions such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, which will free up Kiowa for combat operations.
EADS expected to have 42 Lakotas delivered by August.
The Army requested $224.5 million for fiscal year 2009 to buy 36 helicopters, according to budget documents. The Army intends to buy 322 aircraft during an eight-year period.
In the midst of ARH troubles, Army officials have repeatedly touted the Lakota as a successful COTS model. But the helicopter has not gotten away without its share of problems.
In a report issued last summer by Charles McQueary, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, the Lakota was scrutinized for having two significant flaws. The helicopter was found to be unsafe to fly on hot days and unfit to carry two critically injured patients during a medical evacuation mission.
During flight tests at Fort Irwin, Calif., on an 80-degree day, evaluators found that the aircraft was not suitable for operations because of excessive heat in the cockpit and cabin and a lack of ventilation. This is a serious problem, McQueary notes in the report, because the aircraft’s avionics automatically shut down after 30 minutes if they become too hot.
In response to a question about the findings, Barton says the cockpit overheated simply because it was sitting on the tarmac on a hot day.
“Just like if your car gets hot and you have to wait a few minutes for your air conditioner to kick in. Well it’s the same thing with this aircraft. Heat is building into that glass cockpit.”
But unlike an automobile, the Lakota lacked an air conditioner to cool it down. The Army decided to install window vents and “spoilers” that allow the aircraft to fly with the doors partially open, Barton says at the Army aviation conference. The helicopters will also receive sun shades, similar to those used inside passenger vehicles.
For the medical evacuation helicopters, which are not allowed to fly with open doors, the Army decided to install air conditioners. The service plans to purchase 84 medevac aircraft, Barton says. The Army will also install air conditioners on VIP aircraft, of which it plans to buy 14.
Barton says that the heat flaw is not a big problem because it was discovered during the operational test phase, after which the Army expects to make changes.
As for the finding that Lakota could not carry two critically ill patients, EADS officials contend that it’s simply not true.
“There is no lack of litter space for the medevac mission,” says Randy Hutcherson, vice president of rotorcraft systems at EADS.
McQueary disagreed, asserting in his report that “with two litters there is not sufficient room for the medic to provide immediate medical care to the patients.”
There were initial concerns about where the medical gear was going to be stored, Hutcherson offers as a possible explanation. An equipment bag was going to be strapped inside the cabin, but once they started flying, operators “found that there are better ways to do it.”
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