Magazine article National Defense

Given Budget Uncertainty, Armed Aerial Scout Hovering in Limbo

Magazine article National Defense

Given Budget Uncertainty, Armed Aerial Scout Hovering in Limbo

Article excerpt

* In the deadliest days of the Iraq war, when attack helicopters outnumbered and outperformed the reconnaissance aircraft available to support them, the Army expressed a dire need to upgrade its fleet of Kiowa Warriors.

That need spawned two expensive yet ultimately abortive attempts to design a new armed reconnaissance helicopter. A third attempt is ongoing but has been repeatedly delayed by uncertain finances and reduced demands on the Kiowa fleet.

"When we were in the middle of Iraq, and the Apaches were getting shot up because of inadequate reconnaissance, there was an urgent need for a new scout helicopter" said Richard Aboulafla, an aerospace industry analyst with Teal Group. "We're out of Iraq now, and we're drawing down out of Afghanistan. The pivot to Asia involves none of the urgent need that those wars produced. I just don't see it happening."

The man chiefly responsible for buying helicopters for the Army, Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, is of the opposite opinion. He recently called the Armed Aerial Scout the service's "number-one need, today"

Then in January, Vice Chief of the Army Gen. Lloyd Austin turned Crosby away with marching orders to collect more information on the Army's options. This came after more than a year of studying commercial helicopters and holding an ongoing dialogue with their manufacturers.

"Army leadership has requested additional information regarding AAS capabilities in order to make an informed ... decision regarding the AAS," Lt. Col. James Mills, Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter product manager, told National Defense. Mills retains the throwback title of the Army's previous attempt at replacing the Kiowa.

"Army and [Office of the Secretary of Defense] leadership have been briefed on the AAS study but are awaiting this additional information prior to making the decision. Needless to say, fiscal uncertainty has affected AAS affordability decisions," he said.

Until sequestration and the overall Defense Department budget situation are resolved, the program faces the same uncertainties of other acquisition programs, he said.

In the context of the Army's previous two failed attempts to find a Kiowa replacement, Aboulafia is skeptical that AAS won't end up on the scrap heap of failed procurement efforts.

"Budget realities are such that it is very unlikely the Army will buy a new helicopter," Aboulafia said. "There is a viable interim solution that is well funded and in play. Also, the requirement drivers are slackening a bit."

"Why would you ever think this would attract cash in the current environment?" he added.

Aboulafia has doubted the Army's commitment to AAS almost from the moment the flyoff was announced at the October 2011 Association of the United States Army annual symposium. Army officials at that point invited AAS hopefuls to participate in a voluntary flight demonstration of commercially available helicopters that either were or could be rapidly and affordably militarized to suit the service's needs. The demonstrations, to be held at the manufacturer's facility, were to take place in spring 2012. The date then slipped to summer, then to fall, when flights were held over several weeks in October and early November.

Crosby in January said he does not anticipate a decision from Pentagon purchasing officials until the summer of 2014 at the earliest.

Mills said a decision could be made this year in the "spring timeframe," but said there is no date set while all involved wait for word on the Army's financial outlook.

Experts agree the continued delays favor Sikorsky's S-97 Raider, which the company now claims it can build for $15 million a copy under full-rate production.

Sikorsky based its Raider on its X2 prototype. The design uses coaxial rotors and a "pusher propeller" at the rear for forward motion. The company bills the aircraft as high performance with low risk because it takes mature aeronautical technologies and combines them in a novel way. …

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