Scout Helicopter Competitors to Army: It’s Time for a Flyoff

By Dan Parsons

Helicopter manufacturers have flexed their muscles and weighed in for a chance to replace the Army’s aging scout helicopter fleet.

More than a year after Army officials announced they would conduct “market research” on commercially available aircraft, the companies that build them are ready to rumble.

The Army recently concluded voluntary flight demonstrations of five companies’ aircraft designs that could replace its aging and war-weary Kiowa Warrior. Aircraft manufacturers were thrilled to display their offerings, but after years of delays and half-measures, executives are calling on the Army to make a decision.

“It’s time for a competition,” David Haines, vice president for rotorcraft programs at EADS North America, told reporters. “There are alternatives out there today that would allow the Army to have a competition. Keeping the Kiowa Warrior around for another 20 years isn’t the right solution, nor is it a satisfactory option for the war fighter. So run a competition, get it out there and let’s start building this thing.”

The Army is expected eventually to buy about 500 aircraft for between $13 million and $15 million per copy if it chooses not to stick with the OH-58 Kiowa, the earliest version of which was introduced during the Vietnam War. Therefore the program represents a potential multibillion-dollar windfall for whichever company scores a contract. Executives whose offerings must compete to supply the Army’s next Armed Aerial Scout are eager to do more than trumpet their own accomplishments.

David Koopersmith, The Boeing Co.’s vice president of attack helicopter programs, said as much when briefing reporters on its AAS offering at the Association of the United States Army’s annual convention in October. Boeing took Army pilots on a test drive of its AH-6i, a scout version of its Little Bird light attack helicopter, in October.

While Boeing executives were tighter lipped than other competitors regarding the attributes and performance of its contender, they let slip that it flew 10 hours of day and night demonstrations at the company’s Mesa, Ariz., airstrip. That location sits at 1,370 feet above sea level, but company officials would not say whether the aircraft flew at the 6,000-foot altitude that is widely believed to be an Army requirement.

“We are very excited about the Army continuing to go through the voluntary flight demonstrations as we … prepare for what we hope will be an outcome of a competition,” Koopersmith said. “These voluntary flight demonstrations have confirmed or denied some of the assertions that industry is making and that’s healthy. That’s why we very much supported them. We just want a competition.”

MD Helicopters, which builds the airframe for Boeing’s AH-6i, is offering a similar design, the MD-540F, for the AAS program as well.

Col. Robert Grigsby, the Army’s Armed Aerial Scout project manager, said the Army continues to analyze the data from the flight demonstrations.

“The intent was to look at industry and find out where they are,” he said during a recent conference call with reporters. “Industry has been very forthcoming with their capabilities and allowing us full access to data which is critical for the Army. It will help us assess the risk as we decide to move forward.”

The flight demonstrations were designed to inform a recommendation Army Aviation officials will make to a Defense Acquisition Board sometime before February. The DAB will either authorize a competition between AAS participants or suggest that the Army continue the service-life-extension program for the Kiowa Warrior.

AgustaWestland kicked off the program in late June, when Army pilots flew the company’s AW139M prototype. The company plans to militarize the aircraft, if chosen for the AAS program, according to a company statement. Company officials did not respond to a request for comment. 

The remaining challengers handed over their aircraft to Army test pilots in a series of demonstrations that stretched through late October. Careful at every juncture not to call the demonstrations a “fly off,” that is now precisely what company executives are chomping at the bit to enter.

Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. is the only competitor without a working aircraft for Army pilots to fly. The company is offering its experimental S-97 Raider for the AAS competition, though a prototype will not be operational until 2014. The coaxial-rotor aircraft was on display at AUSA beside the X2 concept aircraft from which the Raider was derived. The X2 has successfully achieved high-hot performance of flying at 6,000 feet on a 95 degree Fahrenheit day, but is no longer being flown by the company.

“One of the key pieces … is to find an affordable solution for the U.S. military as we go forward,” Grigsby said. “That’s based on … the capabilities that industry can bring to us based on the requirements set forth. If it’s important to the Army, the Army can choose to go higher [than those requirements]. If things get critical, the Army could decide to go with less [capability].”

EADS let Army test pilots fly its twin-engine AAS-72X, an armed version of the Lakota utility helicopter, over a two-week period in early October. The aircraft was flown at altitudes up to 14,000 feet from an Alamosa, Colo., airfield where Army National Guard pilots train. EADS has already delivered 240 unarmed Lakotas to the Guard. The company also demonstrated its upgraded AAS-72X+. The aircraft features engines that add 200 horsepower of thrust each and a fully digital glass cockpit, among other improvements, Haines said.

At the end of the flight demonstration, company executives received a debriefing by Army Aviation officials that “overall was very positive,” Haines said. Officials with every industry challenger had the same to say about the Army’s evaluation of their aerial scout offering — that Army pilots were impressed, that it satisfied anticipated requirements and came in at or below the service’s desired price point.

Still, they recognize that confidence in their own product does not guarantee a contract.

“It’s easy to stand up here and toot your own horn about your own product, but compete it,” said Haines. “That’s what we’re asking the Army to do … and we’ll take that on any day.”

When industry has already brought the Army working prototypes — ready for production — that executives claim will satisfy many if not all of its scout helicopter needs, why even consider a developmental program? Haines asked. The Army already tried that with Comanche, an effort to develop a scout helicopter from the ground up until its cancellation in 2004. When that program was terminated, the Army launched the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, which bore no fruit and was likewise shut down in 2008 amid cost overrun and developmental delays.

“In these austere times, when everyone is worried about the budget situation, we don’t have the money to waste on new development,” Haines said. “The Army has been very clear about that and we’re ready to move forward with a solution that’s going to meet all their requirements.”

Meanwhile, the Kiowa Warrior, which has been in need of replacement for almost a decade, met what Grigsby called a “major milestone,” in October. The Army took delivery during AUSA of the first OH-58F, which is a service life extension and systems upgrade for the current D-model aircraft.

The Army plans to eventually convert its fleet of various early-model Kiowas to the F-model, which should carry it through 2025 at least. It can convert an OH-58D to an F-model for about $5 million in partnership with manufacturer Bell Helicopter, said Lt. Col. Matt Hannah, the Army’s Kiowa Warrior project manager.

The OH-58F comes with a digital cockpit, and a nose-mounted Raytheon common-sensor payload. Systems testing of the aircraft began at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., Oct. 24. Its first flight is scheduled for April. It could go into low-rate initial production in 2015, with fielding in 2016, Hannah said.

By doing much of the systems integration work at Corpus Christie Army Depot in Texas, Hannah said the Army will save $550 million in production costs and up to $37 million in development expenses over the course of converting all 368 aircraft to F-models. The savings were calculated based on having the original equipment manufacturer, in this case Bell, do the conversion work.

Mike Miller, executive director of military business development at Bell Helicopter, is in the minority among AAS competitors. As a spokesman for the legacy aircraft, Miller isn’t wishing for a competition. He hopes the Army stays loyal to the Kiowa, and decides to continue a long-range upgrade program.

“Everyone is anxious for a decision,” Miller told National Defense. “But we would obviously like them to go forward with the Kiowa. We think it’s the right answer because it adds best value for the proposition and gives the Army several options in a time when budgets are uncertain.”

Bell performed its voluntary demonstration with an upgraded Kiowa, the Block II, out of its Arlington, Texas, facility from Oct. 22-29. Army pilots flew the aircraft, which features a new Honeywell HTS900 engine, for a total of 12 hours, verifying that the helicopter could tackle maneuvers at 6,000 feet on a 95 degree Fahrenheit day.

Miller envisions the Block II upgrade as a continuation and enhancement of the current upgrade program, very similar to the way the Apache attack helicopter was upgraded to a Block II, then a Block III version.

“You’re doing an obsolescence upgrade with F model, but a performance upgrade with Block II,” Miller said. “This gives the Army a lot of options. They can say they don’t have sufficient funds for Block II, and instead go with the F-model for now. They will be able to mix and match how they extend the life of the Kiowa.”

The upgrade program, along with a parallel wartime replacement effort, is aimed at keeping the Kiowa fleet as close as possible to the required 368 aircraft. Because of battle damage and combat attrition, that number is hovering at around 329, Grigsby said. The wartime replacement program takes battle damaged A-model Kiowas, strips them down and rebuilds them as more modern D-models. When low-rate production of F-model Kiowas begins in 2015, wartime replacement aircraft, if there are any, will be converted directly to OH-58Fs, Hannah said.

A total 42 airframes will go through the combat replacement program. The second rebuilt helicopter was delivered to the Army in October. One per month will be refurbished through 2015, Hannah said. Beginning with the third aircraft, to be delivered in November, the airframe will be new-metal, meaning the wartime replacement aircraft will essentially be brand new.

At an attrition rate of 5.2 per year, that should bring the Army back to its desired 368 aircraft, Hannah said.

In the request for information, the Army asked for an average unit product cost of between $13 million to $15 million. Each of the voluntary flight demonstration participants promised its offering meets or undershoots that price point.

Miller contended that price is an estimate of the upfront acquisition cost. Bell commissioned a third-party analysis of the total lifecycle cost of a Kiowa Block II.

“It comes out to be $11 billion cheaper over the 20-year life cycle than purchasing and militarizing a commercial derivative,” Miller said.

Photo Credit: Boeing

Topics: Aviation, Manufacturing

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