U.S. Army aviation plans to preserve newest aircraft, standardize combat brigades
After two failed attempts to replace the Kiowa Warrior, the U.S. Army has finally succumbed to financial pressure and abandoned plans for a third effort to buy a specialized helicopter optimized for the armed scout role.
The decision is part of the latest proposed restructuring to Army aviation, which is likely to go to Congress for approval late next month. It is an attempt by the Army to maintain a smaller fleet of aviation assets in the future—to 10 from 13 combat aviation brigades—without sacrificing readiness.
With this shift, industrial winners are benefactors of serendipity. Those programs already funded despite sequestration—'s Apache and Chinook, Group's Lakota, and 's Black Hawk—remain intact. Bell, by contrast, could see an end to its decades-long militarized Bell 206 franchise, as the Kiowa and TH-67 are slated for the boneyard.
The shelving of the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) will hit Airbus hard; the company spent more than $100 million developing three demonstrators based on the EC145, the same platform housing the. Boeing had eyed a proposal based on the AH-6i and 's AW169-based concept was considered a long shot.
But the demise of AAS means one fewer development program for the helicopter industry, which has been starved for new projects, in favor of extending production programs to support the Iraq and Afghanstian wars. This underscores that the forthcoming Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstration leading to a design for a long-term Apache and Black Hawk replacement could be do-or-die for Bell's U.S. military business (AW&ST Oct. 14, 2013, p. 77). Airbus also had ended its JMR work to double down on AAS, adding insult to injury for the company's helicopter ambitions stateside.
In the last major seismic shift to Army aviation a decade ago, the service also sacrificed a scout helo, the stealthy Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche, due to ballooning cost, in order to funnel money into modernizations for every major Army rotorcraft mission: attack, utility/lift and scout. But the only rotorcraft project that has yet to be started with the post-Comanche money—and that will not be met with a new, purpose-built aircraft if the restructuring proposal is approved—is the armed scout mission.
The Army's new plan calls for the use of Boeing AH-64E Apaches linked with forward-deployedGray Eagles and AAI Shadows to handle the mission. The bet is that the service will continue to make headway in developing operational concepts for linking data collected by unmanned systems to pilots in the cockpit.
The decision is reflective of a turnabout in the service's willingness to rely on unmanned aircraft for critical functions. While the Comanche kill was difficult after 20 years and billions spent on development, the Army ultimately did it to fund the rest of its aviation program, preserving a balance of capability across the fleet. The choice of shelving the Kiowa with no direct replacement is a similar sacrifice in one mission area to preserve the others.
The Army is protecting a far longer-term plan to keep the JMR intact. “JMR is the future,” says Army Aviation Program Executive Officer Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby. It also frees up some money in order to keep alive two key projects: the Improved Turbine Engine Program to deliver more powerful propulsion to the Apache and Black Hawk fleets and a project to field an all-digital cockpit for the.
The shift to Apache also solidifies a foothold for unmanned systems in the Army's future plans.
The Apache/unmanned mix will be able to handle 80% of the AAS mission, says Maj. Gen. Kevin Mangum, commander of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence. However, it cannot address the outermost limits of the requirement to hover at 6,000 ft. at 95F; the so-called 6K/95 AAS requirement remains on the books, but there is neither a plan nor money to proceed with it.
“This entire plan is central on manned/unmanned teaming,” Mangum says. “We are going to harvest the Shadows out of the brigade combat teams . . . and each [combat aviation brigade] squadron will have three shadow platoons organic. We are just starting to scratch the surface on manned/unmanned teaming. It is going to be a game-changer in the long run.”
With manned/unmanned teaming, Apache crews can take varying levels of control over unmanned aircraft (the Gray Eagle and Shadow) in order to augment their ability to scout or attack targets. The control can include sensor feeds from the remote aircraft as well as directly controlling their flight path eventually. Army officials are already eyeing how this concept could support cargo, medevac and air assault.
Underpinning the shift to Apache is a desire to retire 898 old helicopter platforms—including Bell's single-engine OH-58A/C/Ds and TH-67 trainers—to reduce the number of rotorcraft models left in the fleet and avoid premature mothballing of newer airframes. Although those models that would remain in the fleet cost more per flight hour to operate than aircraft being retired, Army officials argue that divesting entire fleets provides long-term savings through simplified training and maintenance and support. Retiring the Kiowa fleet alone allows the Army to avoid an annual bill of roughly $1 billion in operational cost, says one Army official.
The average cost per flight hour of a Kiowa Warrior is about $2,500, compared to $6,000 for the twin-engine Apache. Kiowa advocates point to this stark difference to argue that an all-Apache operational fleet will be more expensive. But Mangum says that “in the aggregate, we are ultimately going to end up saving money . . . . We are not going to be able to deliver anything new; we are just going to have to employ the stuff we have better.”
Ultimately, funding for 690 of the “Echo” models was already in the Army's long-range budget, and the service has chosen the newer airframes over the old ones, despite cheaper operations.
Replacing the Kiowa with a new AAS or proceeding with cockpit and service-life extensions to the fleet required money that the Army had not yet set aside for the mission, and the service was unwilling to cut into its Apache procurement to get it. “That is the cesspool we found ourselves in,” Crosby says. “We ought to be shot if we [shelve] one modernized product [and] we don't want to park any new Apaches, so why don't we use them in the scout role? When you lay out the life-cycle cost to keep the Kiowa, . . . where is that burden? It is square on the soldier's back.”
Crosby is referring to concerns that the aging platform will become more difficult and costly to keep mission-ready. Improvements to the Kiowa cockpit were estimated at roughly $3 billion, with at least $10 billion for a service-life enhancement program. A new AAS is estimated to cost $16 billion.
The plan calls for moving all Apaches into the active-duty fleet to maintain a higher level of readiness. The Army Guard will receive Black Hawks in exchange.
An all-Apache attack/scout helo force also allows for a new and more standardized combat aviation brigade (CAB), Mangum argues. Three CAB types will remain from what was once eight different varieties. The average CAB will now have separate 24-ship attack and armed reconnaissance battalions plus three Shadow platoons and a single Gray Eagle company, he says. This new battalion will be more easily scalable in the event that a small force must be deployed forward.
But the aviation plan does not just shuffle the attack and reconnaissance assets. The Army also plans to press the majority of its new UH-72As, made by Airbus Group, into service as rotorcraft flight trainers at Fort Rucker, Ala. This allows for retirement of 184 TH-67s twin-blade helicopter trainers designed in the 1990s.
By contrast, the Lakota is a twin-engine helicopter with a modernized glass cockpit, similar to what pilots will encounter in a more modern force of Black Hawk Ms, newer Chinooks and Apaches. The UH-72A is not certified for use in combat zones.
One hundred Lakotas will remain in the Army Guard fleet to support the border patrol mission, Mangum says. The balance would be shifted to support training. “A really good thing about the UH-72s is that they are bought and paid for,” he says.
Airbus has delivered 290 Lakotas (five for the U.S. Navy) of 304 on contract through fiscal 2013, says company spokesman James Darcy. The Army's program calls for a total of 345. Ten were proposed in the president's fiscal 2014 funding request, but an omnibus spending agreement hashed out late last week provides for 20 more.
Black Hawks will be used to backfill Lakotas pressed into service for training, and the Army reserve component will pick up an extra 159 UH-60 models outfitted for medevac, a nod toward governors who could want quick access to these assets in an emergency.
The Army's plan to shed full fleets in order to save money mirrors the Air Force's strategy to divest complete fleets—such as the A-10,and Block 30 RQ-4B .
However, it is already being met with skepticism by lawmakers loath to allow helicopters in their districts to be retired.