By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor
With the U.S. Army now seemingly on a timeline for the acquisition of a new reconnaissance helicopter—the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS)—to replace its existing Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior fleet, the main question in these budget wracked times must be: How much “bang for the buck” can the U.S. Army afford? The challenge is one that has been delayed for decades due to the hugely expensive failure of its first replacement program, the Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche, followed by another expensive cancellation, this time of the Bell ARH-70A Arapaho. It should be remembered that the Comanche cancellation in February 2004 was good news for the rest of Army Aviation. At the time Gen. Richard Cody, then Army Deputy Chief of Staff (G-3), promised to use the $14.6 billion that would have gone to acquiring Comanche helicopters toward buying new aircraft and upgrading others within the Army’s helicopter fleets. Although not all of the money was reallocated to Army Aviation, there is no doubt that both Boeing and Sikorsky, the original industrial pairing behind the RAH-66, benefited strongly from the deal. Modernization and upgrade has been the key with Boeing’s AH-64 Apache Block III acquiring “blue ribbon” status and the heavy lift CH-47F fleet not far behind. Sikorsky too has a full schedule of work while it continues the transformation of the Army’s Black Hawks into UH-60Ms. Even American Eurocopter benefited, winning the award of a fully funded light utility program which they paid back with a smooth delivery of the full fleet of UH-72 Lakotas on time and on budget.
The negative side of this story can be found in the fact that the Army took the golden opportunity to modernize its existing airframes as a result, rather than keeping the pressure on industry’s development teams to forge ahead and look for new ideas and designs. While there can nearly always be a downside to every story in some ways, it has been nearly a decade of easy money for the rotorcraft businesses in these organizations. What the $39-billion Comanche program was intended to do was create a next generation armed reconnaissance helicopter. The modernized Apache Block III is the closest the Army has come to this technologically, but it cannot be described as next generation in design.
So the big dilemma the Army must decide upon is this: Is now the time once again to lift up their eyes ambitiously and look for a new next generation platform, do they perpetuate the traditional designed ethos (even if that is a relatively modern Eurocopter UH-72X), or do they play it safe and replace like-for-like with a modernized Kiowa Warrior Block II?
The budget that the Army leadership says they have to spend on the AAS is between $13-15 million per copy. This should be seen in terms of what can be understood from the figures (reproduced below) taken from the DoD’s FY13 Budget Request, published by the office of the Under Secretary of Defense (OSD) in February 2012.
According to figures from the Army, the Apache Block III costs around $23.60 million per aircraft fully equipped. The Chinook CH-47F costs around $30 million per aircraft ($33.23 million fully equipped). The LUH UH-72 costs around $6.04 million per aircraft ($8 million fully equipped). The UH-60 Black Hawk costs around $16.4 million per aircraft ($22.12 million fully equipped).
According to DoD’s appropriation budget figures, Kiowa Warrior OH-58F Wartime Replacement Aircraft (WRA) will cost $183,900 for 16 aircraft in FY13, making the unit price around $11.49 million per aircraft fully equipped. The AAS average procurement unit cost target set at $13-15 million (base year 2012). On this evidence the AAS appears to be budgeted as the second least expensive combat helicopter in the U.S. Army Aviation portfolio until beyond 2030, being only beaten by the reworked Kiowa WRA [a provision of the UH-72 acquisition was that it is not supposed to operate in combat areas]. That reveals much about the complexity it will be able to offer as a new start aircraft (and this perhaps gives a clearer idea of where Army decision makers may have to focus their selection criteria). It goes without saying that they will want the best that their money can buy, but at $13-15 million this is not going to be a next generation aircraft.
Under the RFI/voluntary flight demonstration (VFD) plan, the Army will analyze the results of the flights and discussions with industry to “determine if an achievable, affordable capability exists with moderate risk.” But as Program Executive Officer (PEO) Aviation Maj. Gen. William “Tim” Crosby has explained, as have the documents given to industry for this exercise, the VFD and discussions with industry are not part of any down-select process; it is and remains a demonstration of current capability.
This has been a safe line for the U.S. Army to take in laying out what it expects the aircraft to achieve. It recognizes the enduring shortcomings of UAS systems but emphasizes the importance of manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T): “a combination of manned and unmanned platforms (teaming) provides an enhanced capability and best meets aerial scout requirements [AAS Project Office].” While an AAS helicopter with all the attributes of increased speed, range, endurance and hover out of ground effect (HOGE) is the ideal, the Project Office concedes that “higher-performing mixes cost significantly more than lower performing mixes and results in extreme risk to aviation portfolio affordability.”
The Army’s operational expectation, matched against current capabilities then set against the identified budget still appear difficult, if not impossible, to balance. With the Joint Requirement Oversight Council (JROC) beginning to examine the Army’s findings from December 2012, an approval from the Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) would not be expected until the middle of 2014 at the earliest, with a request for proposal (RFP) following that. In other words, the potential competitors in this acquisition competition have at least another 18 months to further develop and refine what they are working on.
This may play into the hands of Sikorsky—the company that currently has nothing to demonstrate. Steve Engebretson, Sikorsky’s AAS program director, said during the Army’s AUSA annual exposition in October that the manufacturer will have a flying S-97 Raider prototype by mid-to-late 2014. Although the most futuristic looking of all the current proposals, Engebretson stated that in fact the aircraft would represent a combination of much that was possible today: “We have been working a long time to debunk the myth that because this is high-performance aircraft it is going to be very complex and expensive—its actually just the opposite of that.”
He points out that the concept blends capabilities from other platforms as well as some currently being developed. “Everything that will fly in the S-97 Raider is already performing elsewhere in other products including fly-by-wire [in the CH-53K]. The U.S. Army does not have a lot of fly-by-wire so the USMC program is leading the way for DoD.” He added that government analysis into the CH-53K capability would also be useful in proving the S-97’s capability. Continuing on the “new but not new” line, Engebretson said that the concept of using rigid rotor blades was not new and that coaxial drive systems have been around forever.
In conclusion, in terms of the overall AAS competition, the longer the DAB takes, the later the RFP is issued, the better position Sikorsky will be in to offer something approaching next-generation capabilities. In contrast, Bell Textron’s Kiowa Warrior will keep on aging as a platform design, as will Boeing’s AH-6. EADS North America has the drive of Eurocopter behind its AAS-72X and with this summer’s displays of its X3 (X-cubed) technology demonstrator achieving speeds of 232 knots and more (Sikorsky’s X2 achieved 250 knots), these two seem to be nosing ahead with future potential in their flight bag. But at what cost?
Engebretson makes convincing closing remarks bringing in the Army’s desire to introduce a Future Vertical Lift aircraft (ex-Joint Multi Role). “The way the Army is going with JMR contracts they are talking about replacing their medium fleets by 2030. Once they start that there won’t be any money to address the armed reconnaissance fleet, so they will have to live with their selection to 2050-60 until after they get past the Black Hawk/Apache replacements.”
What he is leading to is the assertion that a new generation type aircraft selected for the AAS would allow the Army to assess capabilities before transiting to replacement aircraft for its medium fleet. “Maybe we should try them in a 300-aircraft fleet before we take it into a 3,000 fleet,” he suggests.