DRS Technologies, a Finmeccanica-owned U.S. defense contractor, has supported the distinctive sensor ball that sits atop the U.S. Army’s OH-58D Kiowa Warrior since 1998. Technology updates the company has developed will make the electro-optical targeting system known as the mast-mounted sight (MMS) more lethal and better protect Kiowa Warrior crews—if only the Army continues investing in the long-serving scout helicopter.
Budget cuts and reduced spending levels have forced the Army to re-evaluate its future aviation strategy. Earlier this year, as part of its Fiscal Year 2015 budget submission, the service announced an “aviation restructuring initiative” that among other steps will retire the entire fleet of 312 Kiowa Warriors. With its recent plan to acquire a new-build armed aerial scout shelved, the Army will rely on Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and unmanned aircraft to perform the armed scout mission in the near term.
Whether or not the Army retires its Kiowa Warrior fleet, the helicopters will remain in service and potentially in harm’s way for another five to eight years, argues DRS. The company contends that the Army earlier committed to implementing three engineering change proposals (ECPs) to both update and improve the MMS. It wants the service to “responsibly retire” the helicopters in part by approving the ECPs, which would replace the sight’s laser rangefinder/designator (LRF/D) with an improved LRF/D, add a laser pointer and deliver second generation forward-looking infrared (FLIR) capability with a new processor.
“We are requesting the Army to continue to procure those engineering change proposals for the mast-mounted sight because the dollar costs are relatively small and because they enhance dramatically the lethality, survivability and safety of the crew,” said Wayne Sauer, DRS Technologies vice president. “We’re not talking millions here. With the three ECPs together, it’s maybe $150,000 to $200,000 per aircraft.” Another plus: the modifications can be done at the unit level, and require little new pilot training, Sauer said.
In May, the U.S. House endorsed upgrading the MMS in its version of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
Northrop Grumman and DRS designed the new diode-pumped LRF/D as a drop-in replacement for the legacy laser designator. The companies say the advanced system will allow OH-58D crews to remain concealed while acquiring and illuminating targets and guiding Hellfire missiles and other laser-guided munitions to targets from greater stand-off ranges.
Currently, Kiowa Warrior crews in combat situations may be required to designate a target that ground forces can see with night-vision goggles. “The only way they do that right now is the [non-flying] pilot basically has this little laser pointer on his finger and he hangs out the door,” Sauer said. That won’t be necessary with the embedded laser pointer DRS developed for the MMS, which the pilot activates with a switch on the cyclic.
The new, two-card processor saves weight and upgrades the MMS from a first-generation to a second-generation FLIR capability, Sauer said. “That’s like taking [Operation] Desert Storm and comparing it to today. That’s the difference between second gen and first gen,” he said.