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Army aviation faces tough choices on modernizing

Apr. 18, 2013 - 08:56AM   |  
The Kiowa helicopter tops the Army's list of potential modernization projects.
The Kiowa helicopter tops the Army's list of potential modernization projects. (Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon / Army)
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Options for the next generation of ground combat vehicles are solid, but there is still plenty of work to be done in upgrading the Army's aviation capabilities.

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Options for the next generation of ground combat vehicles are solid, but there is still plenty of work to be done in upgrading the Army's aviation capabilities.

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In high-profile Army debates over future equipment decisions, options for next-generation ground combat vehicles are fairly clear, but strategic choices still need to be made about upgrading the service's overstretched rotary-wing fleet.

An Army modernization report released March 4 was blunt about the ambiguity service leaders feel about one potential new program, the Armed Aerial Scout, envisioned as a replacement for the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior.

“The Army may pursue a new-build Armed Aerial Scout helicopter or recapitalize the current fleet, a decision that will be based upon the maturity of technology, as well as affordability,” planners wrote.

Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and Secretary John McHugh signed off on the report.

The Army said that for several years it has “assumed risk in our armed aerial reconnaissance portfolio” and is making a decision “for a path ahead on the future platform for this capability (service life extension to the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior or a new start).”

At the January AUSA Aviation Symposium in Washington, Maj. Gen. Kevin Mangum, commanding general of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence, stated, “our most urgent capability gap right now is manned, armed reconnaissance,” and that while the Army has a requirement, “we are going to fill that requirement and we are going to figure how we are going to do so soon.”

Focusing on connectivity

As with all the ground and aerial platforms the Army is considering, network connectivity is key. While ground vehicles need to be able to talk with one another as well as with increasingly networked dismounted soldiers, next-generation aerial platforms must play well with unmanned aerial vehicles and defend themselves against jamming and electronic warfare attacks.

While the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan required a massive investment and much innovation in the realm of jamming and disabling remotely activated roadside bombs, aerial assets have operated with relative impunity. Industry and the Army now are taking a hard look at what kind of jamming and protection suites to install on next-generation fleets.

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The long-term solution to provide much of the Army's rotary-wing capabilities is the Joint Multi-Role helicopter, part of what is being called the Future Vertical Lift helicopter requirement. On March 6, several industry teams submitted proposals for the JMR's technology demonstrator, which is envisioned as a first step in establishing designs for the platform.

The bird isn't expected to fly until 2035, so the service and industry are taking a deliberate approach to what is potentially a huge, long-term deal.

Interested teams include a collaboration between Boeing and Sikorsky, which are joining forces to submit Sikorsky's X2 helicopter technology; EADS; Bell Helicopter; and AVX Aircraft.

The Army has said it expects to begin awarding development contracts in late 2013.

Touting the savings

As budgets tighten, the Army's rotary wing leaders can claim that they've been effective stewards of the taxpayers' dollars. The Army has inked a succession of multiyear contracts for upgrades and modernization for the CH-47 Chinook that will save more than a billion dollars for the service between 2008 and 2017. The estimated savings come from comparing what costs would have been under more expensive single-year deals.

The first multiyear contract saved $449 million on upgrades and maintenance for the CH-47F variant between fiscal 2008 and 2012, while the Army claims savings of $810 million on a new $3.3 billion contract with Chinook maker Boeing on a 2013-2017 contract.

The latest Chinook deal was in danger of being scrapped due to the inability of lawmakers to pass a yearly defense budget, and the possibility that the latest continuing resolution would prohibit new-start programs, such as the Chinook refurbishment.

But the CR gives the services the flexibility to start new programs, and Army aviation spokeswoman Sofia Bledsoe said that with the signing of the CR, “we are still anticipating a May award. Our negotiated settlement with the excess of $800 million savings will remain as long as we award the [multiyear] contract by the end of June. The Army does not expect any delays or interruptions with production.”

The Army has also saved $1.8 billion with the award of a fiscal 2012-2016 contract for UH-60M Black Hawks. Those savings will likely come in handy as budgets tighten and appropriators look for more areas to cut.

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