Industry Ready and Waiting for Armed Scout Helicopter Demonstration (UPDATED)
Several prominent primary contractors have sunk millions of dollars of research- and-development funding into building aircraft that satisfy the Army’s needs. For its part, the Army announced in October that it would test out those designs in a voluntary flight demonstration to be conducted this spring.
By all accounts, the demonstration has been pushed back until summer, with no date set while Army aviation leaders await an acquisition decision memorandum from the Pentagon. Meanwhile, the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior continues to be flown in Afghanistan with no guarantee of a replacement aircraft in sight.
“What’s driving all this is it’s probably going to be the last great conventional helicopter competition we’re going to have,” said Gary Bishop, vice president and armed aerial scout program manager for EADS North America. “After this, if you look at the Army’s timeline, you get into [joint multi-role].”
Joint Multi-Role, or JMR, is the Army’s plan to field a revolutionary vertical-lift technology that will begin to replace existing helicopters by 2030.
The Obama administration’s five-year defense spending plan put Army aviation modernization on the back burner, delaying major programs for two to three years. But Army leaders have stressed their commitment to the armed aerial scout demonstration.
Careful not to call it a “fly-off,” the testing of off-the-shelf technology will inform Army buyers whether they should acquire a new aircraft or proceed with a service life extension program for the Kiowa. That option is the baseline capability that will be used to judge industry offerings.
“The Army knows they have to do something with the Kiowa Warrior,” said Steve Engebretson, armed aerial scout program director for Sikorsky. “Upgrades have been put off for 20 years because of failed replacements.”
The quest for a Kiowa replacement has been an embarrassing one for the Army, having twice failed to yield a program of record. The RAH-66 Comanche built by Boeing-Sikorsky, sucked up $7 billion before being canceled by the Army in 2004. In 2008, the subsequent program to replace Kiowas with Bell Helicopter’s Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter was cancelled after it, too, suffered from ballooning cost overruns.
All the while, the Kiowa continued its work in the field with few upgrades. The scout fleet is the area where the Army has accepted the most risk during a decade of combat that relied heavily on rotorcraft capabilities, said Rust Weiger, the Army’s deputy program executive officer for aviation.
“There is no specific platform that can meet all of those requirements as is,” Weiger said of the Army’s desired capabilities. “It could be 20 years and millions of dollars of investment before we get there, but we can’t afford that and the Army doesn’t want to wait that long.”
“It’s put up or shut up time. That’s what the demonstration is trying to do. We’re trying to get somewhere in between where we are now and those capabilities and see if we can afford it,” he said at an Aviation Week conference in Washington, D.C.
Industry is ready to put up, but the Army has not said when exactly the demonstrations will take place. It has, however, decided to visit participating companies rather than have them all fly at an Army facility.
Weiger said the Army still fully intends on holding the demonstration this year, but cracked wise at the bureaucracy that is holding it up.
“This should have been done months ago,” he said of the acquisition decision. “Right now everyone is on a bus and everyone has a steering wheel and a brake. No one has a gas pedal to make us go faster, but they can either slow us down or turn.”
When it is ready to proceed, industry will be waiting. Many companies already have flown and tested their offerings against the Army’s expected requirements — mainly that it operate at 6,000 feet on a 95-degree Fahrenheit day.
Bell Helicopter, which built the Kiowa, will offer up its Block II version of the same aircraft. It brings an upgraded sensor suite and more-powerful engine to the proven design. Given the Pentagon’s tight budget, Bell officials feel an upgraded Kiowa offers superior performance without the overhead associated with introducing a new aircraft into the Army’s inventory.
“We intend to prove we can meet that high-hot performance capability,” said Mike Miller, head of military business development for Bell. “We understand the Army’s need for improved performance and we think the Army is taking this process very seriously.”
Miller said the Army likely won’t choose a new-start program in the face of its overall modernization program envisioned in the Joint Multi-Role aircraft, which aviation leaders interchangeably call Future Vertical Lift. Even Bell won’t be able to field a unit of Kiowa Block IIs until the 2015 to 2016 timeframe, he said.
Lt. Gen. Robert P. Lennox, Army deputy chief of staff, said in January that cockpit upgrades to the Kiowa would cost between $2.9 billion and $4.1 billion and the first unit of refurbished aircraft could be fielded in 2016. If the Army decides after the demonstration to purchase a new aircraft, the price tag would go up to between $4.8 billion and $12.1 billion with the first unit fielded in 2022, just eight years prior to the self-imposed 2030 deadline for a joint multi-role aircraft that would replace the current fleet wholesale.
“JMR is going to take a lot of money and they want a first unit in 2030,” Miller said. “If you’re talking about a new-start armed aerial scout, you’re going to run up against that deadline. That’s why we feel we’re a better option.”
EADS North America has taken the same approach with its UH-72 Lakota. The Army already owns 200 of the light utility helicopters and will eventually have 300. It was at a delivery ceremony for the 200th Lakota that Maj. Gen William T. Crosby, program executive officer for Army Aviation, reaffirmed that the demonstration would occur sometime in spring or summer.
But the Lakota’s current configuration is unarmed and it is flown mainly by stateside National Guard units for border security, natural disaster response and other missions.
“Right now it is not allowed in non-permissive environments,” said Bishop. “But we’ve been flying them, integrating sensors, communications equipment and weapons for the past two years.”
Sikorsky is taking a different approach, with the eventual JMR competition in its sights along with an armed aerial scout contract. Its S-97 Raider, developed from the X-2 technology demonstrator, is a new design that incorporates coaxial rotors and a push propeller.
The Raider hasn’t flown, so the Army will have to wait until at least 2014 if it wants to consider the new aircraft. That doesn’t worry Engebretson, who says the Raider incorporates mature technologies in an innovative way to achieve improved performance from a light utility helicopter. He did worry that the Army’s conflicting rhetoric at times both excludes new-start platforms and at other times keeps the door open.
“They say they need a new-start technology and then they turn around and say they can’t afford a new-start technology,” Engebretson said. “We are offering a value solution that the government should take a look at to decide whether they can or can’t afford a new-start aerial scout.”
Because the Raider’s basic technologies — coaxial rotors and an airplane propeller — are currently in use and well understood, it makes the aircraft a fairly low-risk proposition, he said. If the Army decides to go with a new aircraft rather than simply continuing to upgrade the Kiowa, it should consider buying something that will fulfill its needs for another 20 or 30 years, he said.
“So the question becomes, do you need to invest in a true next-generation technology?” Engebretson said. “That’s what they’ll have to decide.”
The Sikorsky example marks a new turn of events in helicopter technological development. In financial straits, the Defense Department is asking industry to pony up development dollars with no guarantee of an acquisitions contract. Sikorsky poured $50 million into its X-2 demonstrator and at least that amount on developing the Raider, though company officials would not specify the aircraft’s individual unit price tag so far.
“We believe that what we’re doing with Raider, that industry funding the majority of technology and development phase, is giving the government a substantial head start on a new-start platform,” he said.
Bishop is equally assured that price will weigh heavily on the Army’s ultimate decision. EADS can field one of its armed Lakotas for less than the $11 million cost of extending the service life of a Kiowa, which should give the company a major advantage over its competition, he said.
“For that, you get a new airframe and you get twin engines,” he said. “We’ve already trained 650 pilots and 400 maintainers for this aircraft. We’re not in the Army logistics systems right now, but we’ve got a detailed plan to introduce it. This is not a high-risk option.”
Other likely competitors have similar arguments for their designs. Boeing is expected to offer an improved version of its MH-6S Little Bird already in use by Army special operations forces.
AugustaWestland’s AW109 utility helicopter also meets many of the Army desired attributes.
AVX Aircraft Co. has floated the idea of retooling Kiowa airframes to meet the improved armed aerial scout requirements. That company’s design incorporates twin fans in place of the tail rotor and adds a coaxial rotor much like Sikorsky’s Raider.
Whatever results from the ongoing analysis of alternatives, and whatever light the eventual release of a request for information may shed on what the service is looking for, industry is ready.
“We’re all just sitting here working on it,” Miller said.
Though plagued by delays and an uncertain budgetary environment, officials from participating companies feel the AAS process in its current iteration has been a fair one.
“The government’s efforts have obviously been aimed at giving industry a chance to show them what each of our platforms can do,” Engebretson said. “I believe they [the Army] have been as fair as they can be to industry through this process. The burden of proof is on us to show them a product that can meet their mission objectives now and in the future.”
Bishop wasn’t worried about the demonstration being pushed back to summer. It will give companies a chance to fly in high temperatures, a main Army priority given limitations the Kiowa has faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His and other participating companies have been waiting for three years, since the first communication regarding AAS came from the Army. Before that, they witnessed the two failed programs.
“All we in industry want is to get on with this,” he said. “It has been a long time.”