Having canceled the replacement for its hard-flown Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopter not once, but twice, the U.S. Army is anxious to avoid any mistakes this time around.

Industry is telling the Army it can build helicopters for the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) mission, and has built demonstrators to prove it. But having failed first with the Boeing Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche in 2004 and then with the Bell ARH-70 Arapaho in 2008, the service is being cautious.

The Army is not abandoning the Kiowa Warrior. Cockpit and sensor obsolescence is being tackled with the OH-58F upgrade, and the Army is keeping open its option to extend the service life of the F-model. But the service also is asking industry for information on designs that could replace the armed scout and to volunteer its helicopters for a flight demonstration.

This is not a flyoff competition, the service stresses, but an evaluation intended to inform a decision by year-end on whether the AAS requirement is to be fulfilled by a Kiowa Warrior service life extension program (SLEP) or by launching a “full and open competition” for a new armed scout helicopter.

It is a strategy not without risk. The Army already has a funding wedge in the budget plan for the SLEP, but this option requires the service to live with the OH-58D's performance and survivability limitations. The alternative requires the Army to divert SLEP funds to pay for development of a new helicopter, and accept the risk in keeping an aging Kiowa Warrior fleet flying until the replacement AAS is fielded.

The strategy was approved by the Pentagon in May, and the Army met with industry late last month to discuss its plans for the AAS request for information (RFI) and voluntary flight demonstration (VFD). “We had a good response from industry and expect that four or five [companies] will demonstrate technology and capability with a flyable aircraft,” says an Army spokeswoman.

“The flight demos may begin as early as the end of June and are projected to be complete in October/November,” she says. “We have planned approximately two weeks with each vendor for the flight demos, which could vary depending on the individual scope.”

Bell Helicopter is planning to participate in the VFD with the OH-58D Block 2, Boeing with the AH-6i, EADS North America with the AAS-72X and MD Helicopters with the MD 540. AgustaWestland has not confirmed whether it intends to participate. These and other interested companies have until July 2 to respond to the Army's RFI, which seeks information on “commercial, commercial-modified, military [and] conceptual” contenders for AAS. The RFI projects an average procurement unit cost for the AAS of $13-15 million, based on a requirement for 428 aircraft. At its cancellation, the ARH-70's projected cost had increased more than 70% to $14.5 million.

This has been a long process. Companies responded to the first RFI in March 2010, and have continued to invest internal R&D in improving and demonstrating their helicopters' capabilities. Recognizing this, the Army has updated the RFI, increasing the weight of avionics, mission equipment and armor to be carried by 50 lb. to 770 lb., based on the current OH-58D and upgraded OH-58F to be fielded in 2017.

The Army completed a lengthy AAS analysis of alternatives in May 2011, identifying significant performance, lethality, survivability and interoperability gaps not met by the OH-58D/F. But the service determined it could not afford to develop a clean-sheet aircraft, so instead it will assess data from the RFI and VFD to “determine if an achievable, affordable capability exists [to mitigate the gaps] with moderate risk.”

While the RFI is open to any existing or conceptual aircraft, attention is focused on those helicopters that are available to be evaluated by the Army in the VFD. The service stresses that aircraft participating in the demonstration will be evaluated not against each other, or the AAS requirement, but against the RFI responses to help understand the technology, cost and schedule risks in each bidder's proposed AAS solution.

Detailed cost and risk assessments by industry and the Army are a key part of the process. None of the off-the-shelf helicopters are expected to meet the AAS requirement, so the Army must decide if the capability beyond the OH-58F SLEP that is offered is worth the risk of not modernizing the Kiowa Warrior and instead procuring a new aircraft. Experience with the RAH-66 and ARH-70 ensures industry has a high hurdle to cross in convincing the Army it will deliver on AAS.

The Army has scheduled up to five demonstrations, each involving about 10 hr. of flying to assess performance, handling qualities and human factors. Flights will include a complete mission profile to measure fuel burn and assess cockpit systems.