18 May 2006

The Army's New Helicopters

The 2007 fiscal year budget currently working its way through Congress includes funding for two new types of helicopters for the United States Army, the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, and the Light utility Helicopter. This has happened with remarkably little fanfare, considering that there are only three primary types of helicopters being used by the Army today (plus a few residual helicopters in a couple of models currently being retired). The first replaces an existing type of helicopter in the Army's inventory, the Kiowa, the other fills niche not found in the current helicopter lineup.


As set forth at dkospedia:

The Army also uses primarily four kinds of military helicopters. The AH-64 Apache is intended for use against tanks and for close air support for infantry. The Kiowa OH-58 is a reconnaissance and light attack helicopter. The MH-60 Blackhawk is a transport helicopter designed to move about a squad of soldiers from place to place. The CH-47 Chinook, is a heavy lift helicopter designed to carry a platoon of soldiers. [It also has a few residual UH-1 Huey helicopters which are being replaced by the MH-60 Blackhawk.]

The UH-1 Huey, in numerous variants, is the original Army utility helicopter, introduced in 1959. About 150 remain in service in the United States Army including the National Guard (which has 60 of them), and about 40 remain in use in the Air Force, and the military continues to move towards phasing them out entirely. They can carry up to 13 troops and somewhat less weight than the Blackhawk H-60 helicopter which replaced it. The AH-1 Cobra is a variant of the UH-1 designed for an attack role rather than a transport role.

The CH-47 Chinook, introduced in 1961, is the Army's tandem rotor heavy lift helicopter. It carries up to 44 troops (an Army platoon) or about 19,000 pounds of cargo. It has a speed of 136 miles per hour and a range of about 300 miles. The most urgent concern of Army planners looking at future helicopter purchases (or some replacement for helicopters) is the aging Chinook fleet.

The OH-58 Kiowa is a small Army reconnaissance helicopter which can also be used in a light attack role introduced in 1961. An attack variant is known as the Kiowa Warrior. It was to be replaced by the Comanche, but that program was cancelled during the administration of George W. Bush. The Army has about 400 of them. The OH-58 was a replacement for the OH-6 and AH-6 "Little Bird" reconnaissance and light attack helicopters which are now used only by one small special operations unit and for Naval aviation training purposes.

The H-60 Black Hawk, introduced in 1979, is the primary Army utility helicopter today, and it has about 1,500 of them in various variants. It is designed to carry an 11 man Army squad or 2,600 pounds of cargo in its most common variant.

The AH-64 Apache is the Army's primary attack helicopter with a crew of two (a gunner and a pilot). They were introduced in 1986 and the Army has about 800 of them. It is equipped with Hellfire missiles which can destroy tanks and heavy cannons (very large caliber machine guns) for use against other targets.


The RAH-66 Comanche helicopter, which was to replace the Kiowa, was cancelled in February of 2004, largely on the grounds that it was overbudget (the projected per unit cost had risen to $36 million each), behind schedule (it had been in development for more than a decade), and was failing to meet the ambitious goals for technological improvement it had set out to achieve (i.e. in 2004 it still didn't work). Also, the Comanche cancellation, in part, reflected concern over whether the manned light attack and reconnaissance helicopter role continued to make sense as unmanned drones, like the Predator, and smaller drones have filled those roles.

Nevertheless, the Army put out a request for proposals to replace the Kiowa again in December of 2004. Two proposals were submitted. Sikorsky submitted an updated version of its AH-6 Little Bird helicopter, while Bell Helicopter, the only other major domestic helicopter maker, submitted a militarized version of its Bell 407 commercial helicopter. The two proposals were considered and in July of 2005, the militarized Bell 407, which has been rechristened the ARH-70 now that it has weapons on it, was declared the winner.

Since both designs were based on existing models of helicopters, there was very little research and development time or money involved. The cost is also, for military aircraft, quite reasonable. The Army is paying $17 million each for the ARH-70 (Wikipedia denotes it as the RAH-70 and one source puts the per unit price at just $6 million each), and unlike most major procurement programs, has not requested multi-year purchasing authority. It appears to be a pay on delivery proposition.

The ARH-70 is a four person helicopter (including crew), and has can mount a cannon and light missiles (up to the size of the roughly 100 pound Hellfire missile) similar to those found on the Kiowa Warrior, the AH-1 Cobra, the AH-6 Little Bird, and the AH-64 Apache. It is not at all technologically ambitious, but in exchange will be reliable, come with the reduced maintenance issues of a helicopter that isn't a 45 year old design and almost as old itself, and will perform better than the helicopter it replaces, if only marginally. The 2007 fiscal year budget funds the initial limited number purchases of this new helicopter, and the Army's plan is to replace all of the Army's authorized 368 Kiowa helicopters (it actually has fewer as Kiowa's that have crashed have not been replaced). Thus, the notion that drones might replace reconnaissance and light attack helicopters in their mission appears to have been abandoned for now. Reports from Iraq that the Kiowa was proving more effective than the Apache at close air support, and that the deep penetration mission that the Apache Longbow and Comanche had been designed to fill had proved a better job for fixed wing aircraft in Iraq also probably helped make this decision uncontroversial in Congress.

The entire 368 helicopter buy will cost about $6.3 billion.

Like the Stryker before it, the AHR is a case of a procurement restraining ambitious vaporware performance standards for proven technology, and achieving rapid fielding of a system that meets the need that is going unfilled, at a reasonable price.

The Light Utility Helicopter

The Light Utility Helicopter is an even more remarkable procurement story. The February 2004 report that called for the cancellation of the Comanche also took a broader look at the Army's need for helicopters and concluded that there was a niche currently being filled by expensive Blackhawk helicopters or the aging UH-1 Huey that could be filled more cheaply using commercial, off the shelf technology.

Rather than focusing on the need for "jointness" or having a multiple purpose system, the Light Utility Helicopter recognized that many Army helicopters were being used mostly to ship small numbers of VIPs, conduct medical evacuations, move small urgent cargo loads from garrison to garrison or place to place in a military facility within the continental United States, or scouting out drug smugglers or people in need of rescue in a disaster, particular for National Guard and Reserve units. Meeting these requirements was the mission of the Light Utility Helicopter program.

Like the AHR program, and contemporaneously with it, the LUH bid called for applicants to submit a finished product based on commercial off the shelf technology, in short order, to meet the Army's requirements, which basically simply required a small helicopter capable of carrying six passengers. This competition was also won by Bell, whose commercial Bell 207 helicopter was chosen for the job. Since this helicopter was not designed for battlefield use, it required no changes for military procurement.

As a result, this system, first put out to bid at the end of 2004, will also be delivered in limited numbers to the Army in the 2007 fiscal year. The price is extraordinarily good for an entirely new class of helicopters, just $3 million each, and because it is already in commercial production, a large buy is not required to obtain the economies of scale necessary to secure a reasonable price. Operating costs will also be dramatically reduced, by about $1600 an hour, from the status quo MH-60 Blackhawk, because it is a smaller helicopter with a commercial counterpart.

Lessons Learned

The Army experience with both the ARH and LUH indicate that avoiding unreasonable technological expectations, and a lack of insistence on a single multi-purpose solution to every problem in an institution as massive as the United States Department of Defense that has enough resources to permit it to diversify if it wishes, can result in a much faster and cheaper procurement process, while still delivering the performance that the military actually needs.

The Army made a third proposal along the same lines for the 2007 fiscal year, for a fixed wing "Baby C-130" designed to carry Chinook sized loads for longer distances (the Army calls it the Future Cargo Aircraft, the Air Force calls it the Joint Cargo Aircraft), at higher speeds and with less fuel and maintenance costs than a helicopter. As discussed previously at this blog, this too would have involved unambitious basically off the shelf technology. But, the Air Force, whose procurement practices are less exemplary than the Army's managed to convince the House Armed Services committee to postpone the purchase, in order to allow for maximum "jointness" in design requirements between the Army and Air Force, which has perpetually put off fulfilling this part of the service's mission, even though the plane would exist, more or less exclusively, to provide airlift to U.S. Army troops and equipment.

This isn't the only case where the Air Force procurement philosophy has caused trouble. While economies of scale are nice, it increasingly appears that trying to replace every single jet fighter in U.S. military service with the F-22 and three modest variants of the F-35, went too far.

Does the military really benefit from commonality of parts between the Air Force's F-35A and the Navy's F-35C, once the complications of having multiple versions is introduced? Or, would the Navy have been happier and better served if it could have designed the next generation carrier based jet fighter unencumbered by Army and Marine needs in the F-35 design? Does the supersonic F-35A, which is essentially a semi-stealthy next generation F-16, really make a good replacement in the close air support role for the better armored, subsonic and non-stealthy A-10?

Also, unlike the Army, the Air Force has failed to look for lower cost options like a Homeland Defense Interceptor (HDI). The HDI concept would have a low cost, minimally armed, minimally capable jet fighter, with few defenses, but a full suite of military sensors and communications equipment, which would handle errant commercial and general aviation aircraft in the United States. This role has currently been filed thousands of times since 9-11 by the much more expensive and more costly to operate F-16, and the F-35A, which would be even more costly to buy and have more overkill capabilities, and have only slightly lower operating costs, would be no improvement for this mission. The Army recognized that commercial off the shelf, fixed price procurement could solve niche problems like this at a reasonable cost. The Air Force has been oblivious to this possibility. The fighter mafia, obsessed with air to air combat, simply cannot get its mind around the idea that not every mission requires an incredibly expensive best in the world class dog fighter like the F-22.


Anonymous said...

I think it intersting that Sikorsky has been building the little bird (AH-6) all these years. I wonder what Hughes/MDC/Boing has been building?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The LUH contract has not been awarded yet and the Bell 207 is not even in the competition. The aircraft involved in the competition are the UH-145, Bell 412, AB 139, and MD-900. The winner is expected to be announced late June.