US Army aviation seeks second wave of modernisation

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The US Army aviation community is gearing up to launch a second wave of modernisation programmes amid a climate of increasing budget pressures and the taint of a recent acquisition fiasco.

Perhaps no other sector of US military aviation benefited more from modernisation over the past decade. The termination of the Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche contract in 2004 refocused the community on wider priorities, and transferred the ill-fated stealth helicopter's $14.6 billion budget to finance new projects.

Five years on, the Comanche budget windfall has been exhausted. Several projects, including light utility helicopters and fixed-wing cargo aircraft, have been brought to fruition, but major requirements still remain open.

boeing sikorsky rah-66 comanche (first modifications)
 © Boeing

The most glaring deficiency is the ongoing search for a replacement for the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, the source of the RAH-66 termination and the more recent contracting disaster.

The army awarded a $6 billion contract to Bell in 2005 to modify its 407 civil helicopter into a military aircraft, and to produce 512 ARH-70 Arapahos. But the contract ended in fiasco last October, when army officials terminated the deal after development costs tripled.

Army officials are now proposing a three-part plan to maintain a viable scout helicopter fleet, says Lt Gen Stephen Speakes, director of army requirements. "We need all the money in the ARH line to go ahead and pursue what is now a very sophisticated challenge," he told the Association of the US Army Aviation Symposium in Arlington, Virginia earlier this month.

The new plan first calls for a "Kiowa Warrior Life Support 2020" programme, which would upgrade the survivability, reliability and avionics of the OH-58D fleet. The army also wants to convert all remaining OH-58As and Cs to the Kiowa Warrior standard, which includes upgraded engines and mast-mounted fire-control systems.

Finally, it is also proposing to relaunch the ARH programme, with the AgustaWestland A109 or A119, Bell 407, Boeing AH-6S Phoenix and an armed version of EADS North America's UH-72 light utility helicopter as potential candidates.

Part of the army's challenge will be defending funding for other development programmes while it launches an all-new ARH deal. Attendees at the symposium, for instance, asked Speakes about the impact of a "run" on the funding account for the AH-64 Block III modernisation programme. "There is no negotiation from our viewpoint that Block III is essential," he replied.