Five contenders jockeying for armed aerial scout program

 - September 30, 2010, 6:27 AM

The U.S. Army could issue a formal request for proposal (RFP) early next year for what could become a helicopter armed aerial scout (AAS) program. The AAS–which might encompass at least 300 helicopters–is a potential $5 billion bonanza for the winner and could have significant implications for civil helicopter manufacturers, not just in terms of revenue but also with regard to driving, or not driving, new technologies such as the Sikorsky X2. Historically, Army aviation has provided the necessary catalyst for successful civil programs, including the Bell 206 and what is now the MD500.  

The AAS would replace the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) program, which was canceled in 2008 because of budget and scheduling concerns. The ARH was built around the Bell 407 airframe and was intended to replace the service’s aging fleet of Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warriors, but the program imploded as unit costs grew to $10 million. The Army now plans to keep that fleet flying through at least 2020 with a package of equipment upgrades and weight reduction that will cost nearly $4 million per aircraft, or $1.8 billion for the fleet. Despite the demise of the ARH, within the Pentagon there is still a strong bias for an AAS solution that builds on the guts of a commercial off-the-shelf (Cots) airframe, but with manned and unmanned/optionally piloted capabilities that could potentially be shared with other branches of the military.  

Kiowa Replacement
According to the Army’s requests for information (RFI)–issued in January–“The Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) program will provide a platform that conducts armed reconnaissance to fight for actionable combat information to enable joint/combined air-ground maneuver execution of mobile strike, close combat and vertical maneuver operations across the full spectrum of military operations.” As with all Pentagon programs, it really comes down to the numbers, and the salient ones on the AAS are 6,000 feet, 95 degrees F and $6.7 billion.

The Kiowa was originally designed to operate fully laden at altitudes up to 4,000 feet, but operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the Army that it needs a helicopter that can operate consistently in high/hot conditions, and the new AAS baseline is widely believed to be 6,000 feet and 95 degrees F. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense (DoD) is beginning to come to terms with Washington’s new fiscal reality, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already taken the knife to several high-profile weapons programs, including the F-22 and missile defense, and some analysts warn that this is just a beginning. In congressional testimony last year, Gates warned, “The spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing.” In a hint of things to come, the Obama Administration partially funded its recently passed $10 billion teacher bailout with $3.3 billion in DoD cuts.

Army Aviation’s current budget is $6.7 billion, roughly $2.2 billion of which is spent on fleet rejuvenation and replenishment. However, as early as 2007, the Congressional Budget Office noted that this amount was insufficient by more than one-third annually if the Army intended to modernize the fleet by 2030.

Those financial dynamics make the selection of a new-technology program, such as one based on Sikorsky’s X2 demonstrator, challenging for the AAS as a program and could make the AAS helicopter itself tenuous. Accordingly, companies responding to the AAS RFI typically submitted a menu of possibilities that included Cots and new technologies.   

Civil Manufacturers Plan To Compete
While Sikorsky offered its X2 technologies packaged as a light tactical helicopter, it also included an updated variant of its 30-year-old UH-60 Black Hawk for the optionally piloted mission.

A Bell spokeswoman declined to offer specifics, but said the company’s response to the RFI “included a variety of options for the Army to consider–from using an all-new aircraft to improving the performance and capabilities of its existing fleet of OH-58D Kiowa Warriors.”

Newcomer AVX Aircraft also proposed modifying the OH-58D. Its proposal–the OH-58/AVX–replaces the Kiowa’s four-blade main rotors with two contra-rotating coaxial three-blade rotors, spaced 41 inches apart vertically, and the tail boom is replaced by a shorter one attached to a pair of ducted fans. An additional twist grip on the collective controls the fans’ collective pitch, while foot pedals continue to control lateral differential pitch. The main rotor blade uses the same Army/NASA Noonan-Bingham airfoils as those on the Carson S-61 (Sea King) rotor blade. The ducted fans each have a 42-inch diameter and seven composite blades. AVX claims the configuration is quieter and provides significant performance enhancements, including 11 percent more lift and 30-percent-greater useful load than a conventional or tandem helicopter with the same power. Fully loaded, it is predicted to cruise at 120 knots.  

A company spokesman said existing OH-58Ds could be converted to the AVX design for $1.5 million per unit. “It is a great design and a great price and it will give the Army what it needs quickly,” he said. The company holds patents on the design and currently employs nearly two dozen engineers who are working on the project, but the spokesman pointed out that it is not in the manufacturing business and is in the process of soliciting capital and manufacturing partners. He estimated that a prototype could be flying 18 months after the company raises approximately $30 million.

European defense consortium EADS is not waiting for a formal RFP before building an AAS prototype. Hoping to build on its success with the U.S. Army’s current order for 178 UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopters, a military variant of the EC145, EADS’s American Eurocopter unit is teaming with Lockheed Martin to develop three AAS-72X demonstration aircraft, another variant of the EC145. David Haines, vice president of rotorcraft programs for EADS North America, said the first aircraft is already in prototype development at American Eurocopter’s Grand Prairie, Texas facility and that it is expected to fly by year-end. A second aircraft will join the test program in November and is currently undergoing tests at Eurocopter’s Donauworth, Germany facility. The third is currently flying at Grand Prairie and is used for trade shows, fit checks, transportability and performance tests among other things. In 2009 it was used for high/hot testing in Alamosa, Colo. (elevation 7,539 feet), and the flights validated its performance margins for the new 6,000-foot, 95 degrees F requirements. According to Gary Bishop, EADS AAS program director, five of the aircraft will fit inside a single USAF C-17.

Boeing is also lining up for the AAS derby and is currently testing its AH-6 Little Bird with unmanned and autonomous systems.