Given Budget Uncertainty, Armed Aerial Scout Hovering in Limbo

By Dan Parsons

Armed Aerial Scout

In the deadliest days of the Iraq war, when attack helicopters outnumbered and outperformed the reconnaissance aircraft available to support them, the Army expressed a dire need to upgrade its fleet of Kiowa Warriors.

That need spawned two expensive yet ultimately abortive attempts to design a new armed reconnaissance helicopter. A third attempt is ongoing but has been repeatedly delayed by uncertain finances and reduced demands on the Kiowa fleet.

“When we were in the middle of Iraq, and the Apaches were getting shot up because of inadequate reconnaissance, there was an urgent need for a new scout helicopter,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace industry analyst with Teal Group. “We’re out of Iraq now, and we’re drawing down out of Afghanistan. The pivot to Asia involves none of the urgent need that those wars produced. I just don’t see it happening.”

The man chiefly responsible for buying helicopters for the Army, Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, is of the opposite opinion. He recently called the Armed Aerial Scout the service’s “number-one need, today.”

Then in January, Vice Chief of the Army Gen. Lloyd Austin turned Crosby away with marching orders to collect more information on the Army’s options. This came after more than a year of studying commercial helicopters and holding an ongoing dialogue with their manufacturers.

“Army leadership has requested additional information regarding AAS capabilities in order to make an informed … decision regarding the AAS,” Lt. Col. James Mills, Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter product manager, told National Defense. Mills retains the throwback title of the Army’s previous attempt at replacing the Kiowa.

“Army and [Office of the Secretary of Defense] leadership have been briefed on the AAS study but are awaiting this additional information prior to making the decision. Needless to say, fiscal uncertainty has affected AAS affordability decisions,” he said.

Until sequestration and the overall Defense Department budget situation are resolved, the program faces the same uncertainties of other acquisition programs, he said.

In the context of the Army’s previous two failed attempts to find a Kiowa replacement, Aboulafia is skeptical that AAS won’t end up on the scrap heap of failed procurement efforts.

“Budget realities are such that it is very unlikely the Army will buy a new helicopter,” Aboulafia said. “There is a viable interim solution that is well funded and in play. Also, the requirement drivers are slackening a bit.”

“Why would you ever think this would attract cash in the current environment?” he added.
Aboulafia has doubted the Army’s commitment to AAS almost from the moment the flyoff was announced at the October 2011 Association of the United States Army annual symposium.

Army officials at that point invited AAS hopefuls to participate in a voluntary flight demonstration of commercially available helicopters that either were or could be rapidly and affordably militarized to suit the service’s needs. The demonstrations, to be held at the manufacturer’s facility, were to take place in spring 2012. The date then slipped to summer, then to fall, when flights were held over several weeks in October and early November.

Crosby in January said he does not anticipate a decision from Pentagon purchasing officials until the summer of 2014 at the earliest.

Mills said a decision could be made this year in the “spring timeframe,” but said there is no date set while all involved wait for word on the Army’s financial outlook.

Experts agree the continued delays favor Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider, which the company now claims it can build for $15 million a copy under full-rate production.

Sikorsky based its Raider on its X2 prototype. The design uses coaxial rotors and a “pusher propeller” at the rear for forward motion. The company bills the aircraft as high performance with low risk because it takes mature aeronautical technologies and combines them in a novel way.

“It is design innovation, not complex technology that allows us to deliver revolutionary performance,” said Sikorsky spokesman Frans Jurgens. “We are not developing advanced technologies. We are repackaging them to get twice the capability of conventional rotorcraft.”

The X2 was able to fly at 250 knots over 23 test flights between 2008 and 2011. It has the ability to hover at 10,000 feet in 95 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, more than twice the Kiowa’s 4,000-foot hover ceiling. The company is no longer flying the prototype.

But until the recent delay, it was assumed that Sikorsky would miss the boat. It won’t have a working Raider prototype until 2014. A second aircraft — the one that the military will have an opportunity to fly — will follow six months after the first, Jurgens said.

As it is for other companies offering conventional AAS options, self-funded developments are a major gamble. Sikorsky poured $50 million into the X2 and will spend “significantly more than that” on development of the Raider, Jurgens said.

Sean O’Keefe, CEO of EADS North America, has said his company spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing the AAS 72-X.

Unless they find a foreign market, losers of the Army’s AAS competition will be stuck with the bill. The situation has caused industry officials anxiety. Some, like Boeing — which offered an AAS version of its AH-6 Little Bird — issued public pleas late last year for the Army to hold a formal competition.

“The Army has asked industry to remain patient while they make an informed decision regarding the AAS, especially considering the uncertain fiscal environment that the Army and the nation are currently operating in,” Mills said. 

Industry patiently waited for the demonstrations through months of delays. Once they were over, officials whose companies participated were chomping at the bit to submit their designs for formal consideration.

Part of the confusion was over what, exactly, the Army wanted to buy. In some sense, uniformed officials are still uncertain. The demonstrations were designed to guide their decision.

“They put out the call, and what they got was kind of a mixed bag,” Miller said. “We understood that the VFD was kind of a way to see the relative merits of each approach, but at the same time it was like, ‘OK, what is it that you really want?’”

Sikorsky was the lone entrant to take a stab at a new technology, versus a more-capable conventional helicopter.

EADS North America offered a military derivative of its UH-72 Lakota — basically arming the helicopter that is regularly flown by the Army National Guard. Bell pitched an upgraded Kiowa Block II, which improved on the avionics and computing systems of the current aircraft and replaced the engine with a more powerful version.

“The Army ended up not just with three different proposals, but three totally different strategies,” Aboulafia said. “Sikorsky was the ‘game changer.’ Bell said, ‘We can wait, we have the current contract.’ EADS offered what they thought was the value-added solution.”

In the meantime, workhorse Kiowa Warriors on rotation out of combat are getting facelifts, thanks to what Aboulafia called a “viable, well-funded” retrofit and technological upgrade program that reached a “major milestone” in October.

The Army then took delivery 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 at least to 2025. 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 late last year at Redstone Arsenal, Ala. 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 Christi 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.

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.

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 of 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.

Army officials stand by the usefulness of the voluntary flight demonstrations as a method of finding out what is readily available on the helicopter market that could perform as an AAS. They perhaps got more than originally bargained for.

“When the Army put out the call, they wanted something that performed better than the current Kiowa Warrior,” Miller said. “But ‘better’ soon went from 130 knots to over 200 knots. That’s the speed that the Army wanted out of a new helicopter.”

The speed requirement grew out of the desire for fewer aircraft to cover larger areas, something Miller and other Bell officials feel can be accomplished by teaming helicopters with unmanned systems. The Armed Aerial Scout requirements included the ability to team helicopters with unmanned aerial vehicles, which can give one aircraft the ability to reconnoiter an area much larger than it could do on its own, and at a lower cost.

“Is speed so important that we have to have a brand new aircraft, or can the Kiowa do it sufficiently with unmanned systems?” Miller asked. “At the end of the day, you can ask for capability all you want, but you’re not necessarily going to get it. We think the Kiowa can perform the required mission.”

The Kiowa is already flying with unmanned wingmen — at least two combat aviation brigades are operating with Shadow drones that pipe video to the helicopter pilots.

Miller predicted that the ultimate outcome of the voluntary flight demonstrations will be an official ratcheting up of the Army’s desired capabilities. Having seen several aircraft that improve upon the Kiowa in an evolutionary, not revolutionary sense, the Army is most likely to revise its analysis of alternatives and release a new requirement for an aircraft that can top 200 knots, Miller surmised.

If that happens, Sikorsky’s Raider would be at an advantage, he said.

“The rest of us who are aiming at 130 knots would no longer be applicable. To reach that speed, you’re going to have to have a total redesign.”

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.

Topics: Aviation, Defense Department, Procurement

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