US Navy proposes more UH-1Ys, AH-1Zs despite test phase setback

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The US Navy will during September propose adding 69 aircraft to the Bell Helicopter UH-1Y/AH-1Z upgrades programme, despite a recent setback during an operational evaluation of the attack helicopter.

Expanding the programme from 280 to 349 helicopters would allow the aircraft inventory to keep pace with the overall expansion of the US Marine Corps to 202,000 personnel, says Col Keith Birkholz, H-1 programme manager for the Naval Air Systems (NAVAIR) command.

Adding 46 AH-1Zs and 23 UH-1Ys would also mean expanding new-build orders for the attack model, he says. Previously, only the UH-1Y was shifting from a remanufacturing model to an all-new build production line, while only a handful of AH-1Zs would be built from scratch.

The overall programme would grow to buying 226 AH-1Zs and 123 UH-1Ys, with the NAVAIR proposal seeking to increase existing yearly orders, as well as adding to the back-end of the production schedule.

 bell uh-1y utility helicopter
 A Bell UH-1Y helicopter

Birkholz says the combined proposal to restructure the programme will be presented for final approval on 17 September to John Young, undersecretary of defence for acquisition, technology and logistics.

If approved, the new procurement plan would appear as part of the US president's fiscal year 2010 budget request, which still requires approval by the incoming administration.

The proposal comes even as progress for completing the development of the UH-1Y and AH-1Z has diverged.

The UH-1Y achieved initial operational capability on 8 August after completing the second phase of an operational evaluation. The milestone means the first three aircraft can begin preparations for a maiden deployment next January.

The AH-1Z, meanwhile, is now stalled after failing to complete the same evaluation phase due to subsystem breakdowns. System problems plagued the Lockheed Martin target sight system, gun control software and the helmet-mounted sight. "I didn't have a smoking gun that I could fix," says Birkholz.

Because the AH-1Z is not scheduled to reach initial operating capability until September 2011, Birkholz says the aircraft can enter a second operational evaluation in 2009 and still reach the milestone by July 2011.

Although the overall schedule can remain intact, the delay for completing IOC means NAVAIR must ask to extend the low-rate initial production phase slightly beyond the recommended guidelines. That proposal is included in the package that will be considered by Young.

Most importantly, Young’s approval is urgently needed for Birkholz to buy the programme’s next batch of 15 aircraft, including 11 UH-1Ys and four AH-1Zs, by the end of September. If that purchase is delayed, the programme’s funding for FY2009 could be jeopardised, he cautions.