Army Keeps Industry Guessing on New Scout Helicopter
NASHVILLE — The Army’s effort to replace its armed scout helicopter fleet remains in a holding pattern.
An "analysis of alternatives" for a replacement of the Kiowa Warrior was initiated two years ago and is nearly completed. It could soon be signed by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta — a necessary step before proceeding with a promised flight demonstration by industry competitors.
Army aviation officials are expected to bring that document before a defense acquisition board on April 23. If the DAB allows the issuance of a request for information, industry will finally learn precisely what the Army wants in.
Helicopter manufacturers had hoped for good news about the armed aerial scout program during this week's Army Aviation Association of America’s symposium. But the postponement of the DAB and budget uncertainty have delayed the process.
“We’ve got to wait for the defense acquisition memorandum that then generates the [request for information]," Steve Engebretson, Sikorsky’s armed aerial scout program director, told National Defense April 3.
Until then, contractors must hurry up and wait for the promised flight demonstration.
A 15-page executive summary of the AOA findings has been making the rounds. Executives for the various companies angling for the AAS contract have seen that summary.
Industry representatives were not surprised that the analysis reportedly concluded that the most affordable solution is to replace the current Kiowa Warrior fleet with upgraded F model Kiowas made by Bell Helicopter and teaming them with Shadow drones, made by AAI Textron Systems.
“Anyone who’s been paying attention could have foreseen that manned-unmanned teaming was ultimately going to be a requirement for AAS,” said Scott Starrett, vice president of government business development for Sikorsky.
Bell officials were buoyant about the AOA conclusions, which put their aircraft at the top of the list of most affordable alternatives.
“We’re pleased with the endorsement through the AOA,” said Steve Reid, senior vice president and general manager of unmanned aircraft systems for AAI.
Mike Miller, head of Bell Helicopter’s business development programs said that a manned-unmanned teaming structure was expected to be an inevitable result of the analysis.
“The analysis has not been completed because the Army continues to receive data,” he said. “Given more data, that conclusion may change.”
The analysis might give the OH-58F a leg up, given that it and the Shadow are built by the same parent company, Reid said. But other armed aerial scout contenders at the symposium said the market is wide open.
The Gaylord Opryland Hotel was a veritable showcase for the aircraft that contractors will eventually demonstrate to the Army sometime this summer. The demonstration was originally scheduled for spring, but a date was never officially set and the process has been delayed as the Army continues to weigh its options.
MD Helicopters took the opportunity to unveil its first new helicopter in 15 years, the MD-540F. The aircraft features a light attack design that can carry rockets, guns or Hellfire missiles and has been flown at 6,000 feet in 95 degrees Fahrenheit, according to company documents.
“The 540F will be a lethal fighting machine,” Lynn Tilton, MD’s chief executive officer, said in a prepared statement. “The 540F will carry much of the same punch as the heavier attack helicopters at a fraction of the acquisition expense and life cycle operation costs.”
Likewise, EADS North America launched the armed version of its UH-72 Lakota, which it calls the AAS-72X. The Army already owns 200 of the unarmed variant. Company officials have said they can produce a new-built Lakota for less than it would cost to upgrade a Kiowa to current specifications.
Sikorsky is displaying its X-2 flight demonstrator and a mock-up of the company’s X-92 Raider, which hasn’t flown yet. The prototype aircraft, which has coaxial rotors and a push propeller instead of a tail rotor, is scheduled to take to the air in 2014.
Boeing brought to the convention two of its Little Bird light attack aircraft, also being offered for AAS. AgustaWestland’s AW109 twin-engine multi-purpose helicopter was also present as a possible contender. AVX Aircraft Company set up shop to showcase plans for retooling Kiowas with tail fans and cockpit upgrades to round out the list of competitors, for a total of at least six companies.
“With a difficult budget, the Army has some tough decisions to make,” Engebretson, said.
After two failed attempts to replace the Vietnam-era Kiowa spanning more than a decade, Miller said everyone involved is chomping at the bit to move forward.
“I think the Army is anxious to do this demonstrations and I know that industry is anxious,” he said. “Now we just have to wait.”