Military Racing the Knife
U.S. ARMY OFFICIALS AND MILITARY vendors are racing to pursue acquisition of new armed reconnaissance and light-utility aircraft before the funds allocated to those projects vanish and the existing recon and utility fleets are exhausted.
The Armed Reconnaissance and Light Utility helicopter programs were initiated a year ago, after top Army leaders canceled the Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche armed recon and scout aircraft. The Army's chief of staff, Gen. Pete Schoomaker, said at the time that the $14-billion-plus planned for completing Comanche's development and fielding that aircraft would be preserved for its newly designated replacements. So far, that's been the case. But U.S. military services are under pressure to pare $30 billion from the Pentagon budget for the next five fiscal years to help offset the cost of ongoing combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. With those operations expected to continue indefinitely as part of the Bush Administration's War on Terrorism, many industry members and observers expect budget pressures to continue for the U.S. military services, including the Army.
Current Army leaders vow that funding for aviation programs is safe. The Army Dept.'s chief acquisition officer told the Assn. of the United States Army's Aviation Symposium last month in Washington, D.C. that the preserved Comanche funding "will be the last thing" cut before the Army's Fiscal 2006 budget is sent to Congress this month.
"We're not going to touch" that money, Claude Bolton, assistant Army secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology, said Jan. 6.
Attendees at the symposium were impressed with Bolton's fervor. But as one veteran of the Comanche program noted, Army leaders had insisted a year earlier that Comanche was the service's highest aviation priority.
The speed of the ARH and LUH programs is driven as much by operational concerns as budgetary ones. Army aircraft have been operating at intense tempos in harsh environments in Iraq and Afghanistan, factors that have accelerated the consumption of their service lives. As fast as the procurement processes have been proceeding, "I would love nothing more than for industry to say, `Let's do it faster,'" said Lt. Col. Neil Thurgood.
Thurgood is the Army officer managing the ARH program, which expected industry responses by Jan. 24 to a request for proposals issued Dec. 9, 2004.
Plans call for selection of a contractor by June, which would be Milestone B for the program.
Current plans call for an initial cost-plus-incentive fee contract for system development and demonstration, with firm, fixed-price options for low-rate initial production. The Army plans to procure 368 ARHs through Fiscal 2011, with production starting next year and reaching a maximum of 90 aircraft a year.
Thurgood said the current goal is to field 30 aircraft with an Army unit by late in Fiscal 2008.
Bell Helicopter is offering a modified version of its 407 for the ARH requirements. The company cites the aircraft's pedigree, which includes the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and a large civil fleet, and the worldwide technical support base for civil 407s as key advantages for its offering. While the ARH candidate will undergo live-fire testing against small-arms and classified infrared and radio-frequency threats, Army officials stress that the program is intended to field a non-developmental aircraft that is as close to a commercial-off-the-shelf solution as you can get with a combat aircraft.
A key change in Bell's proposal for the 407ARH is its sensors would be mounted in a pod under the nose, as opposed to the mast-mounted sight on the Kiowa Warrior. This is a direct lesson of combat in Iraq's urban environments, which Bell officials said proved the higher value of seeing threats below and behind the aircraft as opposed to far out in front of it.
Boeing is contemplating a candidate based on the MD Helicopter OH-6. EADS North American Chairman and CEO Ralph Crosby said Eurocopter will not enter the competition with the EC635. Army documents on ARH stress that, given the classified nature of the program's requirements, only U.S. prime contractors will be considered for the work.
In contrast, Army officials said, the Light Utility Helicopter program is looking for a straightforward commercial-off-the-shelf aircraft. The program is expected to release an RFP this month, with the goal of selecting a contractor as early as May. Plans call for acquisition of 322 LUHs. Of those, 94 would go to the Air Mobility Command and the Army's National Test Centers. The Army National Guard would receive 84 for medevac missions and 144 for recon and security/homeland security battalions.
Bell is offering its 210 FAA-certificated upgrade of the UH-1H for the LUH. The 210 made its first flight Dec. 18, 2004 at the Bell Edwards & Associates subsidiary in Bristol, Tenn. Bell is seeking FAA certification before March 31.
Starting with a refurbished UH-1H fuselage, Bell adds dynamic components from its 212 and an FAA-certificated Honeywell T-53-517B engine. The result, it promises, is a zero-time, FAA-approved, single-engine, medium utility helicopter with operating costs 40 percent below those of the UH-1H (and a greater useful load) at a unit cost of about $3 million.
Bell is partnered with Honeywell and Air Methods on the 210 program.