Industry is poised to offer the Army a laundry list of possible replacements for its armed scout helicopters, but when and if they will have the opportunity to display their wares remains unclear.
Several prominent primary' contractors have sunk millions of dollars of research-and-development funding into building aircraft that satisfy the Army's needs. For its part, the Army announced in October that it would test out those designs in a voluntary flight demonstration to be conducted this spring.
By all accounts, the demonstration has been pushed back until summer, with no date set while Army aviation leaders await an acquisition decision memorandum from the Pentagon. Meanwhile, the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior continues to be flown in Afghanistan with no guarantee of a replacement aircraft in sight.
"What's driving all this is it's probably going to be the last great conventional helicopter competition we're going to have," said Gary Bishop, vice president and armed aerial scout program manager for EADS North America. "After this, if you look at the Army's timeline, you get into [joint multi-role]."
Joint Multi-Role, or JMR, is the Army's plan to field a revolutionary vertical-lift technology that will begin to replace existing helicopters by 2030.
The Obama administration's five-year defense spending plan put Army aviation modernization on the back burner, delaying major programs for two to three years. But Army leaders have stressed their commitment to the armed aerial scout demonstration.
Careful not to call it a "fly-off" the testing of off-the-shelf technology will inform Army buyers whether they should acquire a new aircraft or proceed with a service life extension program for the Kiowa. That option is the baseline capability that will be used to judge industry offerings.
"The Army knows they have to do something with the Kiowa Warrior," said Steve Engebretson, armed aerial scout program director for Sikorsky. "Upgrades have been put off for 20 years because of failed replacements."
The quest for a Kiowa replacement has been an embarrassing one for the Army, having twice failed to yield a program of record. The RAH-66 Comanche built by Boeing-Sikorsky, sucked up $7 billion before being canceled by the Army in 2004. In 2008, the subsequent program to replace Kiowas with Bell Helicopter's Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter was cancelled after it, too, suffered from ballooning cost overruns.
All the while, the Kiowa continued its work in the field with few upgrades. The scout fleet is the area where the Army has accepted the most risk during a decade of combat that relied heavily on rotorcraft capabilities, said Rust Weiger, the Army's deputy program executive officer for aviation.
"There is no specific platform that can meet all of those requirements as is," Weiger said of the Army's desired capabilities. "It could be 20 years and millions of dollars of investment before we get there, but we can't afford that and the Army doesn't want to wait that long."
It s put up or shut up time. 1 hat s what the demonstration is trying to do. We're trying to get somewhere in between where we are now and those capabilities and see if we can afford it," he said at an Aviation Week conference in Washington, D.C.
Industry is ready to put up, but the Army has not said when exactly the demonstrations will take place. It has, however, decided to visit participating companies rather than have them all fly at an Army facility. Weiger said the Army still fully intends on holding the demonstration this year, but cracked wise at the bureaucracy that is holding it up.
"This should have been done months ago," he said of the acquisition decision. "Right now everyone is on a bus and everyone has a steering wheel and a brake. No one has a gas pedal to make us go faster, but they can either slow us down or turn. …