As cost crisis strikes Bell ARH-70, Boeing eyes new opportunity

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Boeing sees a new opportunity to sell the AH-6 Little Bird to the US Army, as the Bell Helicopter ARH-70 armed reconnaissance helicopter faces a second major cost overrun.

Boeing "may get another chance with the ARH", business development vice-president Mike Burke told reporters watching the first flight of the company's AH-64 Apache Block 3 attack helicopter on 9 July.

Several hours later, Burke's comments carried greater meaning, after army officials confirmed that Bell's ARH programme is facing possible termination after a recent audit found a 40% cost overrun.

 © US Army

In a letter dated 9 July to Congress members, army officials identified two reasons for the cost increase. "First, the actual labour hours and material costs to complete the system development and demonstration prototype aircraft were significantly higher than previously projected and, second, the contractor labour rates with burdens/overheads are increasing at a higher rate than previously projected."

The purpose of the letter was to inform Congress that the ARH programme had crossed the so-called "Nunn-McCurdy" threshold, requiring the army to recertificate the programme as necessary for national security. The service also has to certificate that the programme's costs and management structure are under control to prevent future breakdowns.

The army selected a modified version of the Bell 407 over the Boeing AH-6 proposal in the original competition. Alternative bids by AgustaWestland and Eurocopter were disqualified based on transportability issues before the competitive phase even began.

Burke showed his revived interest in the ARH programme while discussing the status of two AH-6 prototypes developed for the competition. One has since been modified for manned/unmanned operations and is being used as a surrogate for the General Atomics MQ-1C SkyWarrior unmanned aircraft system.

Gen Richard Cody, vice chief of staff of the army, also attended Boeing's first flight event and said only that "we need an ARH". He says the ARH is a necessary ingredient of a triad that also consists of the AH-64 Block 3 and the MQ-1C. All three programmes were funded by the army's decision to terminate the $14.6 billion contract for the Sikorsky/Boeing RAH-66 Comanche helicopter.