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Armed Aerial Scout Helicopter: To Be Or Not To Be?

Posted by Richard Whittle on

WASHINGTON: Reports that the Army has finally figured out whether the Hamlet of aircraft programs, Armed Aerial Scout, should be or not be are greatly exaggerated. Army aviation acquisition officials have looked at what birds in hand industry can offer to replace the service’s aging OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters and have decided they’d prefer to go after a bird in the bush. They’re still trying to decide, though, whether they can actually afford one.

The Army has been struggling for more than 20 years to come up with an aircraft to replace the Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. OH-58, which first went into service in 1969 and has been upgraded several times. Rumors were reported last week that a decision had been made to buy a new Armed Aerial Scout after a Pentagon meeting. At that session, Army aviation officials briefed the service’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, Heidi Shyu, on the results of flight demonstrations of helicopters manufacturers could offer for the armed scout role. They also presented options and a recommendation, but no decisions were reached.

On Dec. 18, aviation officials are to present their findings and the recommendation they decide they can afford to the vice chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III. Sometime in January, they are to take an official Army request to Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall.

“A decision will be made next year,” said Army spokesman Dov Schwartz, declining futher comment.

In the flight demonstrations, conducted last summer and fall, five manufacturers flew prescribed maneuvers with helicopters they might offer if the Army were to replace the OH-58D. Some participants were certain their aircraft impressed Army observers sufficiently to inspire a new start, but Breaking Defense can report that what Army officials saw left them unenthusiastic about buying existing helicopters for the armed scout mission. Even if outfitted with additional combat gear, the aircraft left Army officials unconvinced they should invest the $10 million to $15 million apiece they have estimated it might cost to buy 425 new Armed Aerial Scouts.

As a result, aviation officers are studying whether the service should develop a more advanced version of some existing aircraft and thus get a scout able to fly faster and farther and hover with efficiency at higher altitudes, among other attributes. The answer depends partly on how much that would cost, how it might affect the helicopter industrial base, and how it might mesh with the Pentagon’s joint Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative.

FVL is a science and technology program to develop four classes of advanced aircraft – light, medium, heavy and ultra — that can take off and land vertically. Under existing plans, the first of the four to be developed would be a medium-lift aircraft known as the Joint Multirole, a vehicle that could be adapted for various missions.

“What they want to do is kind of hold what they’ve got and go for the next generation capability,” an industry source who follows the Armed Aerial Scout issue closely said of Army aviation leaders.

Within the past eight years, two previous Army programs to develop a Kiowa Warrior replacement were cancelled for cost and other issues. The low-observable, futuristic RAH-66 Comanche was killed in 2004 after about 22 years and $7 billion of development. The ARH-70A Arapaho, an attempt to militarize Bell’s successful 407 Ranger, was scrapped in 2008 after its costs soared. After the ARH-70A was cancelled, the Army studied its alternatives and decided the only way to meet its future armed scout helicopter needs would be to develop a new manned aircraft because an unmanned vehicle couldn’t fly close air support missions. Army aviation leaders, however, decided they couldn’t afford such a new start.

Instead, they decided on a plan that Maj. Gen. Timothy Crosby, program executive officer for aviation, described publicly as an “appetite suppressant.” They would upgrade their OH-58Ds to an OH-58F model so those wouldn’t become obsolete, conduct a service life extension program (SLEP) on the Kiowa Warriors later to keep them flying, and wait for the FVL to provide technology for a new Armed Aerial Scout. Now, however, following the flight demonstrations, Army officials are studying whether a wiser course would be to pursue a more advanced aircraft sooner.

“They’ll look for a dramatic improvement in capability,” the industry source predicted.

Theoretically, that might mean a compound helicopter based on Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.’s X2 Technology Demonstrator or on Eurocopter’s equally futuristic X3 hybrid. Both combine rotors with propellers to fly about twice as fast as an OH-58D can, and both have proven their configuration works, at least on a demonstrator. A helicopter-airplane hybrid tiltrotor able to take off and land vertically and fly like a fixed-wing plane by swiveling rotors up or forward, as the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey does, might be an equally speedy option.

What the Army might need to spend to get a more advanced aircraft is unclear, though the answer would certainly be in the billions. Asking for commitments like that when the sword of sequestration is hanging over the Pentagon budget’s neck may sound awfully optimistic, but spending on aircraft development programs tends to start relatively low and rise to significant levels only years later.

In the meantime, the service is committed to its OH-58D upgrade, under which Bell is providing 15 new cabins while the Army replaces the Kiowa Warrior’s distinctive mast-mounted sight with a nose-mounted Raytheon Common Sensor Payload sensor ball, also used by the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle, a Predator derivative. Putting the sensor ball on the nose requires replacing the OH-58D’s landing skids with a set that keeps the aircraft higher off the ground when at rest. With color cockpit displays to replace existing monochrome ones and a number of other technical changes, the OH-58Ds become OH-58Fs.

If senior Army or Pentagon leaders were to decide to replace the OH-58 with another conventional helicopter after all, Bell has proposed a Block II version of the OH-58F, followed by a Block III. The block upgrades would give the Kiowa Warrior a new engine, rotor blades, transmission, tail rotor and, in the end, a new cabin and airframe. Bell flew a Block II during its demonstration for the Army.

The U.S. arm of European defense giant EADS demonstrated both an “Armed Aerial Scout 72X” derived from the UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopter the company has built for the Army in Columbus, Miss., as well as an “Armed Aerial Scout 72X+” based on EADS subsidiary Eurocopter’s civilian EC-145.

Boeing Co. flew an enhanced version of its AH-6, colloquially but not officially known as the “Little Bird.” Anglo-Italian company AgustaWestland flew its AW139, while MD Helicopters Inc. of Mesa, Ariz., offered its 540F, a new helicopter that in profile resembles the Little Bird.

Sikorsky didn’t fly anything but briefed Army officials on its S-97 Raider, a compound helicopter concept based on its X2 demonstrator. The X2, which made 23 flights between 2008-2011, used coaxial rotors and a pusher propeller to reach speeds as high as 290 miles per hour in level flight. The S-97 isn’t flying yet but Sikorsky plans to have two prototypes in the air in 2014.

If the Army does go after after an advanced rather than an existing helicopter to replace the OH-58, it would come as little surprise. Crosby told the Association of the United States Army’s 2012 Aviation Symposium last January that while the Army would look at existing helicopters, it was unlikely to buy one under current budget conditions. “Who thinks that’s affordable?” he asked.

Another key official, meanwhile, Lt. Gen. William Phillips, principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, told an American Helicopter Society dinner just a few weeks ago that it was “time for the Army to look forward and do something dramatic in aviation.”

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