Washington: The Army has given up on developing an entirely new armed scout helicopter for now, but plans to invite companies with existing helicopters that can do armed reconnaissance to demonstrate their wares.
Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, who runs Army aviation programs, announced at the annual Association of the US Army conference in Washington that his office is asking senior Army and Pentagon officials for permission to spend $8.7 million to arrange an April demonstration of helicopters that could replace the aging OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout, which has logged more than 750,000 combat hours.
“We can’t afford a new start for the scout now, ” Crosby explained, so the Army is considering alternatives.
Eager as helicopter companies will be to participate, the planned demonstration is a baby step at best, considering that it was three years ago this month the Pentagon canceled the $2.2 billion contract with the Kiowa Warrior’s maker, Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. for 368 ARH-70As. The ARH-70A, a militarized version of Bell’s civilian 407, was supposed to be the Army’s next “armed reconnaissance helicopter.”
Crosby emphasized that only companies with aircraft already flying would be invited to the April demonstration of possible armed scout helicopter entries. “If it doesn’t fly, don’t bother to show up,” he declared. He also emphasized, however, that this would only be a demonstration, “not a fly-off, not a source selection.” The Army has already done an Analysis of Alternatives for a new armed scout helicopter on paper, he noted, so the demonstration’s purpose is merely to “refine that AoA guidance,” not to actually pick a new aircraft to buy.
Helicopter companies, always hungry for business, were pleased by the news. “We welcome the call for a flight demonstration,” EADS North America CEO Sean O’Keefe said in a Tuesday news release. “Our Armed Aerial Scout 72X is flying and we’re ready to prove its capabilities.” EADS has spent the last three years developing and testing its AAS-72X, a modified version of the UH-72 Lakota utility helicopters it already builds in Mississippi and sells to the Army. The company has built three prototypes for just such a purpose.
A Bell official said the company would likely fly a new Block II version of the OH-58 at the April event. The Block II, which the Texas company is developing at its own expense, has a more sophisticated cockpit and sensors. It also adds a more powerful engine and a new drive train that allows the helicopter to hover at 6,000 feet on a 95-degree Fahrenheit day, an expected requirement when the Army finally decides what a new armed scout has to do. The standard for years has been 4,000 feet on a 95-degree day, but helicopter crews in mountainous Afghanistan have often sorely wished their aircraft had greater hovering ability.
If the April demonstration goes forward, Boeing is expected to show a new version of its AH-6 Little Bird, a scout helicopter flown by the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Other major helicopter companies might be interested in the Army demonstration as well, given that the Armed Aerial Scout program could be the only new Army helicopter program for some time, if it goes forward.
The Army might actually prefer to move on to a far more ambitious aircraft program called Joint Multirole, or JMR, a sort of rotorcraft version of the Joint Strike Fighter project, in which three U.S. services have joined nine foreign military services to develop three variants of the F-35 fighter jet together. The JMR project envisions developing new rotorcraft or short takeoff and landing airplanes in four classes — light, medium, heavy and “ultra” — that can fly far faster than conventional helicopters and takeoff and land either vertically or in very short distances. Given the certainty of declining defense budgets, though, the Army has decided to “take an appetite suppressant” on the JMR until at least 2030, Crosby said.