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Posted: 9/8/2004 12:26:24 PM EDT
Issue Date: September 13, 2004

Army outlines plans for armed recon copter

By Megan Scully
Special to the Times

The Army is moving ahead with plans to buy 368 scout helicopters, although the recently passed 2005 Defense Spending Act contains no specific money for them.

The service is drafting a schedule and budget for the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter program, one of several aviation initiatives funded with money once meant for the RAH-66 Comanche helicopter, which was canceled in February.

Congressional appropriators agreed last month to shift 2005 Comanche funding, but stopped short of assigning specific amounts to new programs. Also up in the air is how much Comanche’s termination fees, now under negotiation, will bite into ARH and the other efforts.

Army officials have begun to define requirements for the ARH, which has been designated a high-priority acquisition category 1D program. Already, the Army Requirements Oversight Council has given the ARH the go-ahead; the helicopter must go to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council for final approval this fall.

Members of the aviation task force, set up last year by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker, expect to release a request for proposals to industry this fall.

Service officials have set up a detailed schedule through 2011, which they delivered to the task force chief, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, at an Aug. 20 meeting. They later called it a “model” schedule that will change.

Aggressive goal

The tentative milestones include a contract award by fall 2005. The first aircraft, expected to be an off-the-shelf variant of an existing airframe, could be in the field by the end of 2006 — a date the Army admits is an “aggressive goal,” said Col. Greg Gass, deputy director of the aviation task force.

“We are still looking at long-term goals, still looking at requirements for the actual aircraft itself, still pretty much in the early stages of establishing the strategy,” Gass said. “That said, one of the reasons we’re looking for off-the-shelf is so it won’t take a lot of [research and development] to try and sort out exactly what we’re looking for.”

The Army intends to buy 368 reconnaissance helicopters through roughly 2011 to replace the service’s fleet of OH-58 Kiowa Warriors, long criticized as underpowered and unable to keep up with the Army’s AH-64 Apache attack aircraft. The new aircraft will help replace Comanche in filling the Future Force reconnaissance requirement.

Rapid fielding

“It needs to be light, mobile and very responsive,” Gass said. “That’s mainly what we’re looking for. Something that we can go out and get off the shelf.”

The airframe also could feature low-signature paints, but stealth — Comanche’s biggest selling point — is not expected to be a prime criteria for the ARH. In re-evaluations of future threats, the Army deemed stealth a costly and unnecessary feature, sealing Comanche’s fate.

“What is an armed reconnaissance helicopter except a light, relatively quiet and fast machine?” said Richard Aboulafia, a defense consultant at Teal Group, Fairfax, Va. “This is not rocket science. This isn’t a stealthy, next-generation multirole attack machine like Comanche.”

Still, some question the tentative schedule for the ARH — and the Army’s and industry’s ability to field a chopper that satisfies their cost and performance needs by 2006. It may be tough to find an existing helicopter that meets the ARH requirements for interoperable command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, said one former Army aviation official.

“If we see an ARH before Comanche would have been fielded in 2009, I would be surprised,” the former official said.

Defense analysts almost unanimously agree that the Army’s top pick for the ARH is the AH-06 Little Bird, a small tactical aircraft developed by MD Helicopters, Mesa, Ariz., and currently used by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

But the Little Bird may not be the Army’s only option. Other candidates for the ARH may include the Sikorsky S-76, the Bell Agusta AB139, and Agusta Westland’s A109, said Rhett Flater, executive director of the American Helicopter Society in Alexandria, Va. Another possibility is the Bell 407, the former Army official said.
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