Approaching the beginning of my fifth decade, I look back to those old western movies with high regard, remembering as a boy being thrilled by the arrival (just in the nick of time naturally) of the cavalry with their white hats, yellow neckerchiefs, white gloves and blue uniforms with the distinctive yellow stripe down the trousers. The image was one that endured, from Randolph Scott in 7th Cavalry to John Wayne in Fort Apache. This romanticized view of the cavalry was a stretch away from the true life and times of the Army during the wars with the native North Americans. Things can often seem better than they are in reality in the present too. During discussions over the potential of an Armed Aerial Scout acquisition program at AUSA, there are still many serving crewmen and ex-crewmen who hold the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior in high regard. This includes ground-pounders who have been thankful for its close air support over the decades, with many a pilot flying into harm’s way to relieve a bad situation on the battlefield.
As with virtually all helicopters, operations first in Iraq and then Afghanistan laid their operational shortfalls bare. Helicopters primarily designed for European land warfare during the Cold War with the Soviet Union were exposed by the heat in Iraq, then the combination of heat and altitude in Afghanistan. The UK’s AgustaWestland Lynx helicopter was virtually out of the operational mix during the hot summer months in both war zones until it was up-engined and given a rotor blade (main and tail) upgrade. Talking at AUSA with James Moentmann, a 28-year Army veteran now working for WBB and an independent advisor to EADS North America, I got more of an appreciation of the real day-to-day problems faced by those operating the Kiowa in combat. Moentmann retired at the rank of Colonel and commanded at the company, battalion and combat aviation brigade levels, flying among others the OH-58D and Bell Cobra AH-1. His career also includes Chief of Staff for Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, as well as Chief of strategic plans, concepts and doctrine for the Army Staff and Commander of the 2nd Infantry Division Aviation Brigade.
He has watched in frustration with many others at the failure to replace the aircraft. He explains that crew and maintainers (including private contractors) have done great things in keeping the aircraft doing a job. “There’s a lot of affection for the old aircraft in the same way you would have for your old horse,” he said, which also included the “manly” connotations of being an aerial scout “no doors, no air conditioning, not much power and alone and unafraid with a few.50-cal rounds.” When in Afghanistan, he continued, “we hardly deployed OH-58s around Regional Command East because it just couldn’t operate in high/hot. As an aviation brigade commander, you have a choice to overwork your Apaches to fill in the gaps. But that is not what they are there for, and cost benefit wise it doesn’t make sense either. But you need the smaller cabin on the Kiowa Warriors for other duties including insertion/extraction, taking local leaders to meetings, etc.” In such an environment, he says, power is such a big deal. “If the crew have to make a sudden evasive maneuver and put the aircraft into a bank, they run the risk of over-torquing the aircraft—that translates badly for survivability and mission effectiveness. Aircraft have needed major components to be replaced because they came under fire and had to bank hard and so doing overtorqued the engine.”
“The max gross weight of 5,200 lbs was also an issue,” states Moentmann. “I did analysis on the OH-58D aircraft with all the equipment. The empty weight of the aircraft as is being deployed, sitting with no fuel but ammunition and the crew came to 4,878 lbs. That gives you 300 lbs and change in gas. They burn around 280 lbs of fuel an hour when they are flying, so they have around an hour’s worth of fuel.” The battlefield solution is to place forward aerial refueling points (FARPs) when the aircraft are going to be needed. That is manageable for a planned operation, but not good in an emergency. “Talking to friends returning from Afghanistan they have to put FARPs out for almost every mission. Locating FARPs at outposts increases vulnerability of the mission as well as direct and indirect costs. The post has to be manned and fuel transported (perhaps by road)—increasing the opportunity for physical or IED attack, then maintained at that location.
“I had an engagement with the 82nd recently when they came out of Afghanistan. There were missions that they had to refuse because they didn’t have the legs to get there and back. They didn’t have time to put a FARP out. So they had to apply Apaches to make up the shortfall of the Scout mission. Now that means they take risk in the attack mission. But they did everything they could to maximize their capability with the aircraft they had.”
Putting the old war-house out to pasture is now no longer an option.