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Down-Sized, Digitized, and In Demand

By Frank Colucci | April 1, 2006
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The Army modernizes its helicopter fleet with evolutionary improvements in more of the same.

With ongoing combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, counter-terrorist missions around the world and an unpredictable but steady rate of calls to support civilian disaster-relief efforts, U.S. military rotorcraft face unprecedented demands to perform. The predicament highlights the nation's failure in the past to keep its helicopter fleets refreshed and replenished and the challenge of restoring and expanding rotorcraft capabilities at the same time that aircraft and crews are running at 100 percent or more. Add to that intensifying scrutiny of federal budgets, which raises the prospect that any delay or misstep could cause rotary-wing programs to be stripped of funding. In this 10-page report, we look at those programs and where they stand.--The Editor

A decade ago, the Cold War U.S. Army had about 9,000 aircraft. Today, in a Global War on Terror, the fleet totals just 3,400. Apaches, Black Hawks, Chinooks and Kiowa Warriors have made Army aviation far more capable, but two combat theaters, disaster-relief efforts at home and abroad and worldwide commitments are wearing out today's helicopters. Fortunately, the Army has plans and (for now) money to replace nearly all its helicopters with evolutionary aircraft. Those replacements will enhance fleet performance, cut operating and support costs and bring digital connectivity to a networked battlespace.


The commander of the Army Aviation Warfighting Center, Brig. Gen. E.J. Sinclair, said in January that Army aviators had logged nearly a million combat hours since September 11th. Bell OH-58Ds in Operation Iraqi Freedom alone had flown 182,000 hr. with operating tempos more than five times their peacetime average. Ground fire and accidents in Iraq and Afghanistan have so far claimed 124 aircraft.

Army leadership killed the Boeing/Sikorsky Comanche in 2004 with promises that its budget would live on in Army aviation. Some $1.3 billion of Comanche money, for example, went to outfit Army aircraft deployed to Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom with the BAE Systems Common Missile Warning System and the "smart" countermeasures dispensers of the advanced threat infrared countermeasures suite. The new missile detectors and flares cocktail defeat the modern shoulder-fired missiles available to insurgents.

Despite a growing federal deficit and weapon system rivalries, President Bush's 2007 defense budget request continues to recapitalize Army aviation. Army plans include new or remanufactured Apaches, Black Hawks and Chinooks, a new Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter traced back to the Kiowa Warrior and a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) Light Utility Helicopter.

Light Utility Helicopters

The Army intends to buy 322 Light Utility Helicopters (LUHs) off-the-shelf for active duty, National Guard and Reserve units. The FAA-certified LUH is supposed to replace UH-1H Hueys and OH-58A/C Kiowas in the continental United States and deploy to non-combat theaters for corps and division jobs too small for the 22,000-lb. Black Hawk.

The primary role for the LUH is logistical and administrative support, but missions range from carrying two Guardsmen on RAID patrols for rural marijuana patches to hauling emergency-response teams into national disasters. Proposals were delivered last October 2005 for the 6,250-lb. MD Helicopters MD902 Explorer, 7,900-lb. EADS UH-145, 11,900-lb. Bell 412EP and 14,110-lb. AgustaWestland US139.

Which helicopter makes better budget sense is to be decided by mid-year. With no research and development budget, the LUH program gets $70.6 million in Fiscal 2006 and $194.7 million in Fiscal 2007 to launch full-rate production and buy the first 51 aircraft. A contract award by the end of Fiscal 2006 aims to have a first unit equipped by late 2007.


Combat attrition and high operational tempos are taking their toll on the Kiowa Warrior fleet. Operation Iraqi Freedom alone has cost 28 OH-58Ds and the 350-odd survivors will be replaced by 368 new Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters (ARHs) in an accelerated program. Bell, which won the ARH contract last July, was to fly the first of four test aircraft before the end of March.

The Fiscal 2007 budget includes $274.1 million to cover 18 ARH test and early production aircraft. A successful limited-user test starting in August would launch low-rate initial production for up to 48 aircraft, including 30 to stand up the first unit in September 2008. Full-rate production would run through 2013, synchronized with OH-58D retirements.

The Army has designated the aircraft the YRH-70A ("Y" for prototype), but has yet to name it. The aircraft is to be powered by Honeywell's new HTS-900 turboshaft engine, which in an improved version could produce 970 shp.--far more power than the Rolls-Royce Allison T703-powered Kiowa Warrior. Survivability improvements would come from the Army's standard missile, radar and laser warning receivers and associated countermeasures.

Like today's OH-58D, the mission of the new helicopter is to gain actionable combat information for joint/combined air-ground maneuvers. Production ARHs will integrate a FLIR Systems BriteStar 2 electro-optical chin turret and the Rockwell Collins Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS) to provide network-centric connectivity. Armament would include Hellfire missiles, Hydra 70 rockets and the General Dynamics 50-cal. GAU-19/A Gatling gun. The Army has re-opened the competition for an Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System to give the ARH, Apache and other helicopters an inexpensive alternative to the laser-designated Hellfire.

AH-64 Apaches

Out of 800-odd Apaches delivered to the Army, peacetime attrition, wartime casualties and foreign transfers today leave the service with 254 original A-model attack helicopters and 449 remanufactured Longbow AH-64Ds. Active Army Apache units are all equipped with the Longbow and Boeing continues to convert A models to AH-64D Block 2 standards.

The production line this July is to deliver the last of 501 D models remanufactured under two multi-year contracts. A contract extension for another 96 Block 2 A-to-D conversions stretches from 2006 to 2009. The Fiscal 2007 budget contains $794.6 million for the first 36 of those remanufactured aircraft. Another 13 all-new, war-replacement aircraft funded in Fiscal 2005 are to be delivered to the Army in 2010 to make good attrition and keep the Block 2 line open to the start of Block 3.

A contract expected this May would return Block 1 AH-64Ds to Boeing's Mesa, Ariz. plant for Block 3 remanufacture with a mix of aircraft and systems improvements. A new, 3,400- shp, split-torque transmission and all-composite main rotor blades should fly together in 2009. The drive train and rotor improvements will restore AH-64A performance in the D Model Apache made heavier with radar, extra fuel and other add-ons. Performance and operating economy will also benefit from the added power and durability of General Electric T700-GE-701D engines. The turboshaft engine is flying in the UH-60M Black Hawk and the Army plans to bring all its -701 engines to common -701D standards.

First AH-64D Block 3 deliveries are scheduled for Fiscal 2010 to keep the digitized attack helicopter in step with the Army's networked Future Combat System. Block 3 avionics would tie the Longbow Apache into the Future Combat System and global information grid and give the front-seat co-pilot/gunner control over unmanned aerial vehicles. To host those powerful capabilities and future enhancements, Block 3 introduces an open system avionics architecture with COTS hardware and partitioned software easier and cheaper to update. A Block 3 prototype Common Mission Processor made by EFW flew last December.

Already in production, the Modernized Target Acquisition and Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (M-TADS/M-PNVS) from Lockheed Martin will enhance both resolution and reliability to increase Apache lethality and decrease operating costs. The first unit equipped with M-TADS should be operational by mid-year. M-TADS will be retrofitted to all D and A Model Apaches in the field and will remain on Block 3 aircraft.

The Block 3 AH-64D would gain more improvements in successive production lots. The Northrop Grumman AN/APG-78 fire control radar, for example, may double its target identification range to 8.5 nm. (16 km.) and enable Apaches over littoral waters to target boats with radar-guided Hellfire missiles. The mast-mounted radio-frequency interferometer on Longbow Apaches will be improved with passive-ranging capability. Cognitive decision aids and assisted targeting functions will come in later lots. The Block 3 open architecture accommodates new capabilities in the field or depot, so Longbow Apaches should go through the factory only one more time.

The Army intends to upgrade all Block 1 and 2 AH-64Ds and at least some of the 200 AH-64As still in National Guard and Reserve units to Block 3 Longbow Apaches. A decision on the last 117 AH-64As in Guard battalions is expected soon. AH-64D Block 3 deliveries now run through 2020. Budget realities have ruled out fly-by-wire controls for the Block 3 aircraft, but with the Apache expected in the Army beyond 2030, Boeing looks to Block 4 and later upgrades.

Black Hawks

The Army counts 1,597 Sikorsky UH-60A and L Black Hawks and plans to get 1,227 new UH-60Ms to restore performance, cut operating costs and bring digital connectivity to its utility, medevac and special operations fleets. Wide-chord rotor blades and 2,000-shp. T700-GE-701D engines would enhance the handling qualities and high-hot performance of the Mike model. A new glass cockpit ultimately integrating the Rockwell Collins CAAS is designed to reduce crew workload and give every UH-60M access to the global information grid. Six UH-60M test aircraft are flying and operational testing happens this year. Sikorsky delivers 16 low-rate initial production UH-60Ms in 2006. The Fiscal 2007 defense budget request includes $740.4 million to buy 38 aircraft and launch full-rate production.

Under current plans, UH-60M deliveries run through 2026. Block 1 UH-60Ms will have cockpits based on the Rockwell Collins' suites developed for international Black Hawks. Block 2 production around Fiscal 2008 inserts the CAAS, fly-by-wire flight controls, full-authority digital electronic control for engines and a composite tailboom. Notional Block 3 UH-60Ms should benefit from later engine technology.

The Army Special Operations Command plans to replace its mixed fleet of 45 MH-60Ks and Ls with standardized MH-60Ms delivered from 2008 to 2014. The command has already taken the first UH-60M test aircraft for modification and test. L-3 Communications Integrated Systems was awarded a contract last April to modify two MH-60Ms--one to be converted from a UH-60M with -701D engines and the other integrated with General Electric CT7-8 B5 turboshafts. Flight tests with the 2,600-shp. alternate engines begin in 2007. MH-60M special operations Aircraft will also integrate CAAS cockpits with a new-generation forward-looking infrared (flir) sensor, low-probability-of-detection/intercept radar and enhanced situational awareness tools.

The Army also plans to modernize its Black Hawk medevac fleet. The last Mike model test aircraft, Black Hawk M8, will be configured as an HH-60M with clinical interior, flir and other mission equipment for initial operational test and evaluation. The 303 HH-60Ms planed are included in the Mike model production total. Even with a fleet of new Black Hawks, the Army plans to retain 589 UH-60Ls. Final disposition of early UH-60As is to be determined in Fiscal 2009.


What started out as a modest cargo service-life extension program is to now replace all the Boeing CH-47Ds in the Army with 395 CH-47Fs "renewed" with new-build airframes under refurbished dynamics and 55 F model Chinooks built from scratch. Under current plans, the last CH-47D returns to Boeing Philadelphia in Fiscal 2018 and emerges as a CH-47F in 2020. The first new CH-47F is to be delivered to the Army this June and the Fiscal 2007 budget request includes $620 million for 21 aircraft.

The CH-47F gives the Army a common Chinook configuration with a stiffer airframe less prone to expensive vibration, a five-screen CAAS cockpit to manage the digital battlefield and deployability changes to reduce teardown and build-up time for deployment via C-5 or C-17 jet transport. It also standardizes the Honeywell T55-GA-714A engine first installed in special operations Chinooks to hike high-and-hot performance of the cargo fleet.

The Global War On Terror has given production priority so far to special ops MH-47Gs converted from regular Army CH-47Ds. The 61 air-refuelable MH-47Gs now planned have enlarged fuel sponsons like those on MH-47E special ops aircraft. Their CAAS cockpits are identical to those in the CH-47Fs but are integrated with the Raytheon AN/APQ-174 terrain-following/terrain-avoidance radar and AN/AAQ-16 flir. A comprehensive aircraft survivability package including the ITT ALQ-211 suite of integrated radio-frequency countermeasures, BAE ALQ-212 directed infrared countermeasures and a new engine infrared exhaust suppressor are unique to the special ops helicopters.

The well-worn MH-47Ds and Es of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment eventually return to the factory to become MH-47Gs or CH-47Fs. The ultimate mix of new-build, renewed and remanufactured Chinooks in the Army depends partly on the Cargo Helicopter Airframe Procurement Support program. CHAPS allows Boeing to sell refurbished Army CH-47Ds to international customers at about a third the price of a new -47F and generates credits for the Army to buy new-build cargo helicopters. Based upon studies now under way, the Army will also decide around 2008 whether to pursue a stretched CH-47X with tandem four-bladed rotors and next-generation engines or join the other U.S. services in a Joint Heavy Lift aircraft.

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