Military, Products

Bearing the Burden

By Rhett Cooder | August 1, 2006

U.S. Army aviation is fielding upgraded aircraft--and keeping watch on its funding.

WITH COMBAT OPERATIONS IN SOUTHWEST ASIA ONGOING, THE CHALlenges of unmanned aerial vehicles before them, and a major modernization of the rotorcraft fleet under way, leaders of U.S. Army aviation have their plates full. Here's a round-up of some of the latest developments and what they mean.

Who Gets the Bill?

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By necessity, foremost on the minds of the service's aviation leaders is the federal budget and how their organizations will fare in the "inside-the-Beltway" fights over who gets what share of it.

Some current and recently retired Army leaders in general, including aviators, are growing more and more unhappy with the Bush administration's approach to funding U.S. efforts to pacify Iraq, defeat--for good--the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan and combat terrorists around the world. That approach, for several years, has been to propose (and get passed by Congress) defense budgets that largely ignore the pace and scope of worldwide combat and counter-terror operations.

Instead, funding for long-planned and reasonably projected operations like combat in Iraq is pushed off to "emergency" supplemental budget bills considered in some ways "off budget." Such bills traditionally were used to pay for true emergency operations, such as those conducted in response to domestic natural disasters, sudden outbreaks of military conflicts overseas and terror attacks like those of September 11, 2001.

The routine use of such supplemental funding bills provides cover, it is felt by some, for senior Pentagon and Bush administration officials to ignore what is, in fact, a very real need for long-term budgetary and strategic planning.

A related concern is that this ad hoc approach to the budget is yet another excuse for top government officials to ignore what some Army aviation leaders see as a very much needed reconciliation of defense funding philosophy with the practical application of U.S. military force. They argue that defense funding still reflects the traditional division of money among the four services, which is weighted toward highly capable and sophisticated air and naval platforms intended to fight a large, concentrated enemy. (Army aviation, they argue, got over that in canceling Comanche.)

In fact, the war against terrorist groups is literally grunt work, largely fought by soldiers and Marines on the ground and the weapons systems--such as helicopters--that directly support their tactical operations. Their dissatisfaction was reinforced when the latest Quadrennial Defense Review, much touted for the critical eye it was casting on complex, costly weapons systems, failed to recommend cutting a single major weapons program. That review was set up in part to provide clear, long-term direction to align U.S. budgetary and national security priorities.

There is little sign, these critics say, that defense funding will change any time soon to reflect the "mud fighter" reality of today's national security threats.

Check Your Calendar

U.S. Army officials have stressed since the $2.2-billion contract to provide 368 Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters was awarded to Bell Helicopter over a year ago that the program is extremely schedule-sensitive. The Army's program manager, Col. Neil Thurgood, told a combined Assn. of the U.S. Army and Army Aviation Assn. of America aviation conference in Washington early this year that the following 90-180 days were critical to the success of the program.

Initial plans called for a first flight of what was subsequently designated the YRH-70A prototype in the first quarter of this year. That plan was revised to fly the aircraft's Honeywell HTS-900 engine and its avionics on two separate Bell 407 test beds, a change Bell officials said was aimed at speeding development work and the provision of production-representative prototypes to the Army. The first prototype, they said, would fly in May.

Well, the program is behind schedule. By the time the Farnborough Air Show in the United Kingdom opened on July 17, the prototype still had not flown, though Bell said it hoped to fly it before the show's end on July 23.

Pilot, What Pilot?

As Army aviation leaders embrace unmanned aerial vehicles and puzzle over how to integrate them with manned aircraft and ground units, two manufacturers have made progress with their aircraft programs.

Boeing reported that its Unmanned Little Bird technology demonstrator flew unmanned for the first time June 30. The aircraft has been flying for two years, but all previous flights had included a safety pilot.

The 20-min. flight of the modified MD530F single-engine turbine aircraft at the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz. advances Boeing's goal of fielding a flight control system design that its officials maintain should be applicable to any rotary-wing platform, regardless of its size. A first application, they say, could be the transport of company- or platoon-sized portions of supplies close to front lines without risking the life of a pilot.

Prior to the fully robotic demonstration, the Unmanned Little Bird demonstrator had accumulated more than 450 hr. of engineering flight-test time as a rapid prototyping platform.

A potential competitor, Kaman Aerospace, reported last month that its Helicopters Div. received a $3.1-million contract modification from the Army Material Research Development and Engineering Command for follow-on work on its BURRO unmanned re-supply helicopter. The funding covers work to enhance features of the automatic flight control system and to support BURRO participation in Army demonstrations. Kaman will perform the work at its Bloomfield, Conn. facility.

Based on Kaman's K-Max, BURRO started life in the late 1990s as a UAV demonstrator for the U.S. Marine Corps, but the corps' interest waned. The Army funding follows Kaman's demonstration of BURRO's lift and endurance capabilities in Army evaluations in Huntsville, Ala. and Bloomfield.

BURRO completed "robot-moving-robot," simulated mission scenarios in November at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. In April, it flew over New England for 12 hr., 17 min. with a safety pilot on board.

BURRO stands for Broad-area Unmanned Responsive Re-supply Operations.

Longbow Upgrade

The Pentagon has approved Boeing's continued work on the Block 3 upgraded version of the Army's AH-64D Apache Longbow. Chief Pentagon arms buyer Kenneth Krieg signed an acquisition decision memorandum on the program July 10, which moves the program from the research phase into systems development and demonstration. Production of Block 3 Apaches is scheduled to start in 2010.

Advanced Reset

Speaking of Longbow Apaches, U.S. Army officials are meeting with their fellow Apache operators from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to exchange lessons on "resetting," or repairing and refurbishing, aircraft returning from combat in Iraq and the Middle East. Reset is a major effort of the Army, given its need to return its precious resource of rotorcraft to the fight as quickly as possible.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force was the first military service to deploy its D-model Apaches to combat, to Djibouti in Africa. Its fliers and maintainers shared their experiences with their U.S counterparts. The Americans are now returning the favor following their large-scale deployment of Longbows to Iraq and Afghanistan, briefing the British Army Aviation Corps, which has deployed Longbow Apaches to Iraq, and the Dutch.

Cut the Costs

Gen. James Pillsbury is a passionate proponent of life-cycle management in rotorcraft and for good reason. As commanding general of the Army's Aviation and Missile Command, he deals every day with the high cost of rotary-wing aviation and he wants that reduced. His current peeve is the long lead time for delivery of helicopter components. The delays are too long and costly for an operational organization like the Army to endure. Of the helicopter industry's supply chain, he has said, "It's broken. It's not working anywhere."

He wants industry to do something about these problems by acting immediately to make its production processes more efficient. "Anyone who thinks Lean Manufacturing is just a temporary buzz word is wrong," he told Quad A's annual gathering back in April. The United States will be in the fight against terrorist groups for a long time, he said.

"Where are the production lead-time decreases?"

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