Is it LUH-labye time for a non-combat UH-72A?

The Associated Press has a critical news report on the UH-72A Lakota, which is the army’s new light utility helicopter [LUH] based on the Eurocopter EC145.

The report focuses on the aircraft’s lack of an air conditioner, but this should be an easily fixed problem.

More interesting is the comment by Representative Duncan Hunter, an outspoken US protectionist, who says the Lakota should be replaced by a US made helicopter. Says the AP article:

“In my view, we would be well advised to terminate the planned buy of 322 Lakota helicopters and purchase instead additional Blackhawk helicopters,” Hunter said in a letter this week to Army Secretary Pete Geren.

Interestingly, Sikorsky had the same basic idea nearly four years ago, just as the LUH requirement was coming into focus. Here’s my article published in Flight International on February 11, 2004:

Sikorsky is planning to compete for a US Army requirement for a light utility helicopter fleet with a lower-cost version of the UH-60L. Freshly marketed as the LUH-60 Black Hawk, the helicopter uses the UH-60L engine and transmission, a UH-60M digital cockpit and adds a health usage monitoring system. Sikorsky officials say the design can be competitive for LUH at $3 million per aircraft and operate at under $1,000 per flight hour. The engines would be operated at 80% maximum power.

Sikorsky’s bid is based on refurbishing UH-60As to the LUH-60 configuration as the older models begin to phase out of the service rapidly over the next few years. Other advantages, says Sikorsky, are a shared training, logistics and personnel structure with the rest of the army’s Black Hawk fleet, and the ability to deploy the aircraft in combat.

The army intends to buy a commercial helicopter for light support missions in a strictly non-combat environment. Other candidates include the Bell 210, as well as potential offerings from AgustaWestland and Eurocopter.

The UH-60A idea was shot down by the army’s requirement for an FAA-certified helicopter. (Sikorsky eventually teamed up with the UH-72A team to offer aftermarket services.)

But that requirement remains the target of a debate both within and outside the army. Should a combat service buy a fleet of helicopters that is intentionally designed to be unworthy of combat conditions? Proponents say the army saves a lot of money, but opponents argue that the troops need more flexibility from their equipment.

EADS North America, the LUH prime contractor, is not blind to this debate, and has already suggested that the UH-72A could eventually be tweaked to become a combat-capable aircraft.

In a recent feature article on LUH, I quoted EADS VP Randy Hutcherson, who says:

“If you’re going to put soldiers in this aircraft in an environment where they’re going to be shot at, our aircraft is not ready to do that and it’s not the right thing to do for the soldiers,” Hutcherson says. However, it remains possible that this part of the LUH experiment may not survive the duration of the programme. When asked if the army will eventually require a military-unique variant of the UH-72A for LUH, Hutcherson replies: “I do. But I think it’s a ways away.”

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