The future of the ARH program hinges on a variety of vital decisions made by both the government and potential contract bidders.
As we walked the floors of the annual Quad-A convention at the Opryland Convention Center last month, the most interesting topic of discussion on the floor by far was the current state of U.S. Department of Defense Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) competition. Since the contract with Bell Helicopter was cancelled earlier this year, the program has entered a virtual holding pattern. So R&W made it our goal at Quad-A to try to bring ourselves up to date.
First, we went to the Program Manager (PM) briefing to hear the official line from the Army. We arrived to find Col. Keith Robinson, PM Armed Scout Helicopter (not to be confused with an Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter) already delivering his briefing on the state of the Kiowa Warrior. The general gist was that the Army has decided, for the moment at least, that it can live with the aged OH-58 through the 2020s if they have to, by treating it like a wannabe LA fashion model, meaning it will be subjecting the aircraft to a regimen of a little plastic surgery and a massive weight-loss diet.
Everyone generally understands the limitations of the Kiowa Warrior, notwithstanding the simple fact that it is just old. Over the years the mission equipment that has been added has made the empty weight of the aircraft balloon to the point that the existing powerplant simply cannot keep up – the aircraft is performing in OEF and OIF with an admirable 84% mission capability rate within its assigned operational limitation of 6000 ft. MSL. It just cannot deliver the desired performance with acceptable margins of safety any higher than that, which happens to be a particular problem in hot/high environments such as those found in Afghanistan. That 6000-ft ceiling the Army has imposed on the OH-58 is what leads to a lot of otherwise seemingly contradictory statements you hear when discussing the performance of the aircraft. In the PM briefing, we learned that the Army is flying the virtual pants off its OH-58’s to the tune of a cumulative 5,376 hours per month, with a mission capability rate in the most recent month of almost 89 percent. That kind of readiness rate exceeds any other helicopter model in the U.S. Army fleet. Those kinds of glowing facts and statements out of context can leave one scratching one’s head and wondering If the aircraft is that good, then why was the Army so keen to get out of it in the first place? And the answer is, the OH-58 does very well at what it is capable of doing, but the Army would like it to be able to do a good deal more.
So now that ARH is dead — at least temporarily - the Army has to find a way to make the existing fleet of OH-58s keep performing a little while longer, and it is actively developing plans to do so. On the plastic surgery side, it first plans to remove the massive mast-mounted sight that is the hallmark of all D-models and replace it with a nose-mounted sensor, most likely the AN/AAS 53 Common Sensor Payload. Not that changing the look of the aircraft was really the goal — the change delivers better performance and shaves about 113 pounds off the weight — they are also exploring all kinds of ways the Army might use composites in place of metal structures on the airframe to reduce weight around the gun mounts.
And speaking of guns, somebody found a bunch of.50 caliber M3P machine guns in a storage shed somewhere that had been pulled from unused Avenger air defense vehicles, figured out a way to mount them onto the OH-58 and managed to shave another 70 pounds off the empty weight in the process. The FN Herstal M3P even delivers about 1000-1100 rounds per minute, giving the aircraft greater firepower and arguably greater accuracy as the faster firing rate leaves a more clear visual trail of where the rounds are ultimately landing. And oh yeah, the generals who oversea the entire program don’t have to pay for them either, because the Army already owns them.
After that, the guys down in Huntsville will be turning to the inside of the cockpit, where the ancient cathode ray tube (CRT) displays offer an easy target for weight savings by replacing them with liquid crystal diode (LCD) displays. A decision has yet to be reached as to which LCD’s will be chosen, but Colonel Robinson and Kiowa Warrior PM manager LTC Scott Rauer both made it exceedingly clear that the Army is in no mood to try out anything on the experimental side. But while they are at it, they also plan to pull out some of the older steam gauges in the panel and replace them with a third LCD display. Nobody seems to be ready to give a final weight-loss tally just yet however, because they still want to go back and add the Common Missile Warning System (CMWS) which had been heretofore left off because it was deemed not worth the additional weight. Combat action has a way of changing such value judgments. And in a move that had to make a few vendors mouth’s water, LTC Robinson issued a virtual open call to any other suppliers who might have components to offer in replacement of other heavier variants on the existing OH-58 airframe or in the cockpit.
We have to believe this whole "diet and exercise" regime represents a worst-case contingency plan, but for now, it is the official Army line. They say they intend to review the ARH program over the course of the next 18-24 months before coming to any new decisions, which could conceivably mean that they would lose all the money they now have appropriated and will have to start afresh with an all new procurement program, with a rather different president and Congress in place than the last time around. That, in and of itself, will be more than a little gamble. But for the moment, Congress has given them a temporary placeholder and a guarantee that they can keep their appropriation dollars and schedule in place as they go through the formal review process.
And this is where it really gets interesting. If you are going to start completely over, do you use the same performance requirements you issued the first time around, or do you look at the new technology that has been developed over the course of the last five years, and incorporate the lessons-learned from the battle theater during that time? Of course, the real temptation will be to take the latter approach and revise your requirements, which means you have to take a long hard look at some other options.
The UH-72-A Lakota was not even offered as an ARH contender the first time around. The American Eurocopter/EADS team members wisely chose instead to focus efforts where they felt they had the best shot at success: with the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) program, which they won quite handily. In the ensuing months American Eurocopter has impressed even the harshest critics by developing an all-new production line in Mississippi, putting a full flight simulator in place in Texas and already delivering over 80 aircraft to date, all on-budget and ahead of schedule.
With such a stellar performance record, you can hardly blame the Lakota team for feeling like they might have a viable option to offer for the ARH program, too. And you certainly cannot fault the Army for taking a hard look at what they have to offer. An armed Lakota might even be packaged as an extension of the existing LUH program, rather than an all new ARH procurement, which would be a bit confusing, but not impossible.
The EADS team that is now taking the lead on any American Eurocopter offerings to U.S. government customers did not disappoint at Quad-A. They quite cleverly displayed one of their prized UH-72A-like aircraft in full camo livery with assorted ARH-like accessories, such as a nose-mounted sensor, rocket pods and mini-guns all positioned around the aircraft, but not actually mounted to it. This surprisingly had a rather striking visual affect. It seemed to scream-out, "Hey look at me! I don’t have these things right now, but wouldn’t it be cool if I did?!"
Then the team held a press conference to announce that they have now partnered with Lockheed Martin to provide the integration needed to convert the civilian certified UH-72A, aka EC145, up to the mil-spec standards required for an aircraft to enter the actual combat theater and see real action. Remember, the UH-72A is strictly operated by National Guard units here in the States in support of the home-front. And therein is the challenge: converting a non-military aircraft to a military aircraft. If anyone can do it effectively, this team certainly has the track-record and the credentials to pull it off. But if you are the U.S. Army and you might want to field something faster than that, then you have to also consider aircraft that are already militarized.
The Boeing AH-6S would be another obvious option. Call it "Son of Little Bird" (primarily because Big-Bird is already taken), but don’t call it an MD500. This is a Boeing offering, as in maker, deliverer and supporter of the Apache and Chinook, two of the best managed procurement programs in the history of military aviation. Five years ago when Gen. Richard Cody outlined his plans to proceed after the cancellation of Comanche, he was pretty clear about what he wanted for an Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. His words were something to the effect of "... and I am going to buy 368 Little Birds." Not reconnaissance helicopters... not scouts... not OH-58 replacements, but "Little Birds". Though it didn’t ultimately work out that way, he was very clear about which aircraft was his own personal preference.
Now the AH-6S is based on a design every bit as old as the OH-58, but an even bigger problem is that it is a very small aircraft to be asked to carry all the sensors and processing equipment, not to mention armor and weapons required for the ARH. By the time you add everything in, you barely have room for a pilot. But the brain trust at Boeing has not been sitting quietly on their hands since Bell was awarded the initial ARH contract. You have to keep in mind that they just happen to have all the same engineers and software designers who have made the Apache the flying computing/killing machine it is at their full disposal 24/7. That makes it much easier for the AH-6S communicate not only flawlessly with the Block-III Apaches, but with the whole host of networked troops and vehicles with whom the Apache can tactically interface with. This is a definite advantage for the Boeing team, to say the least. Airframes are almost secondary nowadays to computing capabilities.
And the engineers at Boeing seem to have tried to cover their bases with a couple of different approaches toward the size issue. While R&W was visiting Boeing’s Mesa, Ariz. facility last summer for the first delivery of the Block-III Apaches, we noticed one lonely Little Bird sitting at the end of the runway in front of a sea of Apaches. When we asked about it, nobody was evasive, but the answer was rather down-played, to say the least. It was sort of like, "Oh, that? That’s just our little project," as if they just thought it would be kind of interesting to put all the same sensors and communications equipment in a Little Bird that they put in an Apache and see what would happen. But then it got even more interesting. "You know the Army needed a stand-in for the Predator UAV in the Hunter-Warrior program and all the Predators are kind of busy right now. So, that aircraft is being used as a surrogate."
They went on to explain how they had modified that particular Little Bird so that you can flip a switch in the aircraft, get out of it (or remain seated if you are a really trusting soul) and let someone else fly the aircraft for you from a base on the ground — it can be a manned aircraft or an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) at the option of the operator. Nobody in the Army has directly asked for such an aircraft to our knowledge, but it certainly opens up some interesting possibilities. It also happens to provide an answer to the Little Bird’s size issue. Of course if it can go autonomous at the flip of a switch, you could also produce it strictly as an unmanned vehicle, which is kind of interesting, given that the official line from the Army as it reviews the ARH program is that it is not limiting itself to the initial requirements of the program, and may even consider an unmanned aircraft instead.
But the more realistic option from Boeing would seem to be the AH-6S version they rolled-out at Quad-A in mock-up form. This version addresses the capacity limitations of the old OH-6 airframe with a 15-inch plug to stretch the fuselage. When you marry this new fuselage to the Apache-like sensors, processors and communications suite they have already designed, it is still a bit small. But now you have something considerably more interesting. And then comes the fun part.
In order to outright cancel the Bell contract for the ARH, the Secretary of Defense had to prove to Congress that not only was the Bell product not meeting the requirements, but that there was another option available in the market that actually could meet or exceed those requirements. And it seems that OSD – the office of the Secretary of Defense — had already taken a look around in the midst of the Nunn-McCurdy stop-work period, did its own evaluation and came to the conclusion that there really was another option for the Army to pursue, or else it could not have cancelled the Bell contract as it did. The Little Bird is the only realistic, other viable option to have met those initial ARH requirements.
Now the Army is not forced to choose that other viable option, but it is something for them to consider. It might also choose to take a hard look at the lessons learned in-theater along with any realistic technological advances on the horizon and choose to issue completely new requirements for the ARH that would surpass the capabilities of the Boeing AH-6S, along with all the other initial contenders. On that front, one of the very real lessons learned in Afghanistan is the need for any ARH to provide better hot/high performance than was initially specified in the ARH documents. The Army very much wants an aircraft right now with 6k/95 capabilities – the ability to hover out of ground effect (HOGE) at 6,000 feet on a 95 degree (Fahrenheit) day — which is a significant step up from the 4k/95 original ARH requirements. Not that an Army aviator would really have a desire to fly into the mountains of Afghanistan and hang around in a high hover on a hot summer day, but there is a reason that the Army has chosen to issue an operational ceiling for the OH-58 at a flat 6,000 feet: The aircraft simply does not work well above that. When the mission calls for a scout aircraft at a higher altitude, they generally call on an Apache.
So, we decided to have a chat with Mike Burke, Boeing’s director of Army rotorcraft business development, about the possible increase in hot/high requirements for ARH and how that might affect the manufacturer’s ability to deliver the viable alternative to the Army that the Secretary of Defense seems to believe it can deliver. Since the new ARH request for information (RFI) that went out to the industry late last year has already bumped the hot/high performance requirement up to 6k/95, can they get there? The answer, according to Burke, is yes. He believes the company can, and it plans to prove it later this summer. Engineers are feverishly at work on a new blade design based on current Apache blade technology. They are also working with Rolls-Royce to increase the available power simply by testing and certifying the powerplant to higher performance standards. (Read new paperwork, not new components.) With these modifications, Burke says, "We will meet or exceed every ARH requirement, even at the higher hot/high requirements of 6k/95".
There are also several provisions within the recently tweaked acquisition guidelines from DoD, commonly known as the "5,000 Series," that work in favor of Boeing as well. Feeling a bit burned by the promise of aircraft performance that has never been proven in actual flight, the DoD is reverting back to the old ways of procurement, where decisions must be made based on flying prototypes that can prove they meet the requirements, rather than promises on paper. If the Army decides it needs to get new aircraft quickly, this certainly favors any company with an aircraft that does not require significant modifications to meet the specifications.
Of course the fact that the U.S. Army is actively engaged in combat right now using helicopters that cannot always perform as needed, also opens up several other procurement courses that might not even require new bids from multiple vendors, such as Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) allowing for "other than full and open competition." FAR Subpart 6.302-1 allows for exceptions to the usual bidding process when... only one responsible source and no other supplies or services will satisfy agency requirements. And FAR Subpart 6.302-2 allows for exceptions when there is " unusual and compelling urgency." The Army could simply say it has an urgent need, it has found a vendor who can meet those needs, and is willing to move forward with a purchase which might be a short-term, stop-gap solution only. Or, it could ultimately become the full ARH procurement. That sort of decision would certainly be heavily influenced by how well the LA Supermodel plan works out on the existing fleet of Kiowa Warriors. But if the Army determines that it is going to be able to get by for now with modified OH-58s, then you also have to consider the wild-card options: The Sikorsky X2.
Sikorsky X2 technology is not alchemy. It is real. When you consider the advances in composite blade technology, fly-by-wire and active vibration controls, the technology absolutely exists to create a vertical lift aircraft that can fly at 250 knots. Somebody just has to figure out how to bring it all together, and Jeff Pino, president of Sikorsky is confident that his people are going to do just that.
Pino told us at Quad-A that Sikorsky was, at that time, only a matter of days away from beginning flight tests utilizing the rear turbofan, and assured us that they will surpass 230-240 knots by the end of this year. That sort of revolutionary advance in technology, being so realistically on the near horizon, has to give the Army some pause about moving forward too quickly with any other ARH procurement based on a traditional helicopter design that might very soon be ancient technology. And with a T-800 engine under the cowling, the X2 isn’t likely to have any hot/high issues, either. But the real test of the X2 will not be whether or not it can blow away the old retreating blade stall speed barrier — we have little doubt it will do that — the real test will be whether the Sikorsky engineers will be able to do it in a manner such that anyone other than a graduate of the National Test Pilot School would be comfortable flying, much less riding in the back of.
The vibration issues with such a design will be significant. The challenge for Sikorsky will be to convince the Army that it can work out the kinks in what will be a very short time frame for such a revolutionary aircraft. The Army may truly believe that it can stretch out the life of the OH-58 into the 2020s. But that does not take into consideration how many more of the existing 338 airframes in its inventory might be lost in combat or to other accidents. And at present, there is no way to get more. That production line at Bell is shut down completely.
So if you want a fielded ARH based on X2 technology, you probably have less than 10 years from today to make it happen, which may sound like plenty of time, but is exceedingly condensed for an all-new aircraft development process. Still the Army could choose to pursue any number of interim alternative options, including unmanned vehicles or some combination of manned/unmanned systems in order to bide their time, if they truly believe that Sikorsky can make the X2 technology work. Which brings us to the last realistic wildcard option.
Bell Helicopter. No specific model listed here, because Bell is understandably choosing to play things pretty close to the vest when it comes to discussions about ARH. One thing is certain: The original ARH production operation is 100% shut down. It is not continuing developmental work on its own, possibly in hopes of getting the kinks worked out in time for a rebid. And who can blame them?
The tendency is to look at Bell as the outfit that had the ARH contract in their hands and then lost it through sheer ineptitude. That assumption would be horribly unfair. The original ARH contract, as written by the Army, was a total mess. And whoever won that contract was going to come back with significant cost over-runs. Insiders tell us the Army based its target price on the basic costs they had been paying to acquire Little Birds for the 160th, which was primarily material expenses. The price target did not take into account the non-recurring expense of developing the aircraft or a whole host of other very real expenses that every vendor would have realistically faced to develop what the Army wanted. As it worked out, Bell just happened to have been unlucky enough to have won the competition.
So, when we asked Bell’s executive vice president Mike Blake what the company’s strategy might be toward the new ARH competition, his answer was pretty matter of fact: "We are going to wait and see what the requirements are in the RFP."
In the meantime, Bell is clearly doing everything it can to support the existing fleet of OH-58s and help the Army stretch the airframe’s life, which in itself is not a bad business model. The Army expects to spend upwards of $1.3 billion on modifications and upgrades to the OH-58 over the course of the next 10 years.
As far as what Bell might offer in a revised ARH bid, the first aircraft that comes to mind is the long-awaited 429.
Though the development of this all-new aircraft for the commercial market has faced delays of its own, the timing of it might prove to be just right for ARH.
Even still, a 429-based bid would face all the same hurdles as the EADS/Eurocopter EC145 bid, but without the significant advantage of already being the aircraft of choice for the Army’s light utility missions.
Of course, Bell officials just announced a significant sale of 407s to the Iraqi Army — all of which will go through the standard sales channels and ultimately be modified for military operations by none other than the U.S. Army, which is rather interesting.
But most interestingly, Bell might have a game-changer of their own to offer. If the Army opts to go the patient, new technology route, Sikorsky might not be the only entrant able to crack the speed barrier. Bell officials are actively floating and promoting a brand new design they are calling a Hybrid Tandem Rotor (HTR). According to Blake, HTR is "more helicopter than a V-22," in that the full wing tilts rather than the rotors, but only about 25 degrees, leaving the aircraft to depend more on traditional helicopter rotor flight dynamics. But according to Bell X-Works engineers — led by industry veteran Nick Lappos, who was brought back into the rotorcraft industry by Bell to re-energize the Technology and Design Dept. — the HTR should be able to cruise at 225 knots. Officially, the design is tagged as a replacement for Black Hawks and Apaches, but who knows what might come if HTR technology were to be aggressively pursued?
Unlike Sikorsky, Bell officials are very clear that they have absolutely no intention of beginning the development of such an aircraft on their own without government procurement dollars to support it. DoD is apparently not the only one feeling a little burned by the recent past procurement history.