The US Army will hold voluntary flight demonstrations for its nascent Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) programme, but any would-be contractors must prove their helicopter offers are better value for money than a life-extended Bell OH-58F Kiowa Warrior.
The service's default plan is to extend the life of the current reconnaissance fleet.
"We will extend the service life of the Kiowa fleet today," says Maj Gen Tim Crosby, the army's executive officer for aviation, "because Armed Aerial Scout is unaffordable - that's kind of our baseline."
The US Department of Defense is expected to sign off on the service's analysis of alternatives, which says the army needs a new manned reconnaissance helicopter. "The only way to get there is a full-scale development," Crosby adds.
But the service faces a dilemma. It could do nothing, it could solider on with the OH-58F fleet, or it could buy a new helicopter - but money is the problem.
"We have put in the budget what we call a service-life extension," Crosby says, pointing out that the service is willing to accept the risk posed by not having a new scout helicopter.
The Kiowa cannot perform every mission the service wants, and although the army can cope with this state of affairs, it is willing to evaluate new machines that may prove more capable than the OH-58F.
"The only way we're going to know that is to demo [the other aircraft]," Crosby says. However, he stresses the tentative nature of the exercise. "It is not a fly-off. It is not a competition," he says.
Maj Gen James Rogers, commander of the army aviation and missile command, says: "Everyone says they've got something that's better than a [life-extended OH-] 58. All we want to do is say 'show us'."
Funding for the AAS would be drawn from another army programme, hence the need to ensure any replacement aircraft is worth the investment.
The army is expected to get the go-ahead on 23 April from the Defence Acquisition Board to proceed with the review. That will allow the service to release a new request for information, which will then lead to a new round of aerial demonstrations. But officials are unwilling to commit to a timeframe.
In the meantime, would-be contractors are displaying their hardware at the Army Aviation Association of America forum in Nashville, Tennessee.
EADS unveiled its new AAS-72X (above), a version of its UH-72A light utility helicopter that has been heavily modified for the armed reconnaissance role. Meanwhile, Boeing promoted its AH-6 Little Bird, which it has sold to Saudi Arabia.
Incumbent manufacturer Bell likewise has a significant presence at the show. Sikorsky was also present with a mock-up of its S-97 Raider compound reconnaissance helicopter and high-speed X-2 concept.
Meanwhile, MD Helicopters is expected to announce the launch of the MD-540 armed helicopter on 3 April.
Crosby says he expects five contractors to take part in the AAS flight demonstrations.