Army Aviation Plan Would Divest Kiowas, Move Guard Apaches To Scout Role

By Jen Judson / December 6, 2013

A proposed restructure of the Army's aviation fleets, shaped to deal with a dismal fiscal outlook and inevitable force reductions, includes the divestiture of the entire OH-58 Kiowa Warrior fleet and a plan to use AH-64 Apache helicopters -- mostly taken from the National Guard -- to meet its armed aerial scout mission, according to Army officials.

The service convened a working group two months ago to come up with a better plan to deal with impending budget cuts and reductions, a service official told Inside the Army. The Army's fiscal year 2015 through 2019 program objective memorandum would “salami-slice” Army aviation's budget, the source said, leading the service to develop an alternate plan to better manage its aviation assets and structure the branch in a way that makes sense for its future role.

“Why do we even consider making any changes to our Army aviation fleet?” Col. Frank Tate, the Army's aviation division chief within the office of the deputy chief of staff, G-8, asked during a Dec. 5 interview with ITA. “The 'why' is simple: It's the budget, the money.”

The Army is facing a “perfect storm,” Tate said, involving continuing resolutions, sequestration and the end of a lengthy conflict in Afghanistan that together have forced the service to overhaul its aviation plans. "To continue to make leaps ahead in Army aviation technologies, we would not be able to train at the level we need to, sustain at the level we need to, recapitalize aircraft at the level we need to," he said. "The budget drove us to have no choice but to reconsider all of our assumptions about what the future of Army aviation would be."

Army officials speaking on the condition of anonymity told ITA that the service's proposed restructure is designed to simplify the types of platforms within the fleet and divest the oldest, least-capable aircraft.

At the top of the list is divestiture of the Kiowa fleet, which would mean the cancellation of the OH-58F Cockpit and Sensor Upgrade Program, still in its early stages and not slated to reach low-rate initial production until July 2015. CASUP is meant to keep the Kiowa flying until a life-extension program can be initiated or a new replacement is procured.

The Army has 337 Kiowas, according to spokeswoman Sofia Bledsoe. The planned end strength is 368 aircraft.

While the restructure proposal remains predecisional, service officials have taken it to Capitol Hill and informed key industry players that the option is on the table. Bell Helicopter's director of military programs, Mike Miller, told ITA in a Dec. 4 interview that the Army had told the company -- which manufactures the Kiowa Warrior -- that it was considering divesting its Kiowa helicopters.

“The Army is taking huge cuts; we understand that they are under the gun and are looking at a lot of different possibilities,” Miller said. “They have mentioned to us that divestment of the Kiowa Warrior is one of the courses of action that they are looking at and so we understand that. . . . They've got to do some things they wouldn't do if they weren't under this severe budget pressure. But under the same token, we believe that if you are under severe budget pressure your most cost-effective aircraft ought to be retained.”

The idea of removing the Kiowa from the Army inventory is a radically different option than what was being weighed a year ago. In an effort to replace the 40-year-old armed scout helicopter, the Army in 2012 went so far as to hold official flight demonstrations of industry offerings from Boeing, Bell, EADS, AgustaWestland and MD Helicopter, and pored over data on Sikorsky's yet-to-be-built, next-generation coaxial helicopter, called Raider.

The Army's baseline option, if it decided against holding a competition for a new helicopter, was to keep the Kiowa flying by initiating a service life-extension program.

A replacement helicopter would require hefty up-front costs that the Army likely cannot afford, and cannot justify in the current fiscal climate, Army officials have lamented in the past. Moreover, attempting to keep the Kiowa flying, even into the 2020s, is also risky from an affordability standpoint.

Under the restructure proposal, the Army would instead replace its Kiowas with Apache helicopters -- which will likely come from the Army National Guard, according to the service officials.

While Kiowa pilots have done a remarkable job flying the aircraft in Afghanistan over the past 12 years of war, there are areas where the helicopter can't fly, and Apaches have increasingly been used to fulfill the armed scout role in theater at high altitudes, the officials noted.

“Today's Apache pilot is more like a scout pilot,” one official said. The Apache also has “incredible” stand-off capability with its Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sight technology, and it can carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles. A Kiowa on occasion can carry only one missile, the official noted. The Apache “has proven to be a tremendously effective scout in the war,” the official added.

While it has been said that the Apache is more expensive to operate and maintain -- one study by the Logistics Management Institute determined it could cost $1 million more per year, per aircraft, than a Kiowa -- the service, under the proposed plan, would not buy new Apaches.

“It's true the Apache is more to fly per hour, but we already own these Apaches, we already pay to fly them. By divesting the Kiowa Warrior fleet, that is all savings,” one official noted. “Frankly, it's superior, so it's not right or fair or accurate to say one Kiowa Warrior is cheaper than an Apache. That is not what I'm buying; what I'm buying is combat power.”

The decision to use Apaches as scouts is viewed as an “interim” solution to meet the armed scout requirement, the officials noted. “That is not to say that down the road there is not going to be another armed scout. Maybe something with a leap ahead in terms of range and speed that we want, but for now this will fit,” one official said.

Additionally, using the Apache for the armed scout role will help move the Army forward in developing manned-unmanned teaming, which proved to be a game-changer during initial tests and in Afghanistan. “The fleet we want to go to” has a MUM-T configuration, an official stressed, adding that MUM-T is “the future of Army aviation.”

Apaches teamed with Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft systems during the AH-64E's initial operational test and evaluation in the spring of 2012, opening many eyes in the Army. The service wants unmanned aircraft and helicopters to be “organic” in aviation units and deployed as a team as part of regular operations. The configuration serves especially well in armed reconnaissance operations. An analysis of alternatives for the armed scout mission released in January 2012 found that the most affordable option was a pairing of Kiowas and Shadow unmanned aircraft. The most capable option, however, was the Apache.

While the Guard stands to lose most of its Apaches to the active Army, it would receive other aircraft in their place, according to the service officials. Moreover, it would lose fewer helicopters than it would under the current FY-15/19 program objective memorandum as part of the deal, the officials noted.

No decisions have been made on what would be taken out of the Guard and what would be injected into its fleet in place of the attack helicopters, the officials stressed. The Army is working with the Guard to determine what will make the most sense, they added. For example, “there is a huge demand signal from the [continental United States] that they need more lift” for missions involving responses to natural disasters, the officials said. The Guard does not have enough Black Hawks and Chinooks to carry out all of those missions today, the officials noted, so the Guard may prefer more of those aircraft over Apaches.

Training Choppers Also Under The Gun

In an additional effort to minimize the diversity of its fleet and take out aging aircraft, the Army is also proposing to divest its TH-67 training helicopters at Ft. Rucker, AL, according to the officials. To replace the TH-67s, the Army plans to use some of its LUH-72A Lakota helicopters, which are already a part of the service's inventory, for pilot training. While some of the LUH-72As needed for training will be pulled from the Guard, others will be pulled from the active component. The Guard will keep its security and support battalion Lakotas it uses along the Southwest border, according to the officials.

Bell Helicopter's Miller questioned the proposed divestment, asking, “Why would you get rid of something that is already in place and already been paid for?” Bell also manufactures the TH-67 helicopters. He added that “we've got no complaints about its ability to meet the mission at Ft. Rucker.”

Transfer costs should be considered in deciding whether to swap TH-67s and Lakotas, Miller said. “You have to buy new simulators, you are going to have to move those Lakotas, you are going to have to renegotiate maintenance contracts at Ft. Rucker. That is a huge bill,” he said.

Additionally, the Lakota has twin engines, while the TH-67 has a single engine. Training on a single-engine aircraft is easier for a new pilot; they are also less-costly to operate. “You don't want to over-complicate your initial instruction, nor do you want to overpay for it,” Miller said.

However, the Army officials said the service would have to pay a heftier bill to keep the TH-67s flying because Bell doesn't make the model anymore. “We lose a couple every year, we already have less than we need for our training fleet,” and Ft. Rucker has had to bring in OH-58s to complete the fleet, an official said. Also, the service must cannibalize parts to keep the current helicopters running.

Additionally, the TH-67s will require a life-extension program that the Army can't afford, the officials said. If the service wanted to buy something new -- from Bell or another company -- costs would be prohibitive, they added.

Using Lakotas as trainers would also give the Army an incentive to revamp how it trains pilots. “We've been running flight school on the same paradigm since the era of Vietnam,” an official said, adding, “cut to 40 years later, the entire fleet” -- aside from Kiowas -- “is a dual-engine, glass-cockpit aircraft.” Training on a single-engine, rigid-rotor, small helicopter makes less sense as time goes on, they argued

The Army, in looking around the globe at other first-world countries with large militaries, has learned that German forces were very pleased with their Eurocopter EC-135s -- which uses the same airframe as the Lakota. While the LUH is not designed well for “crash-and-bang” exercises performed during training, the Army has also learned that Australia has completely phased out that training practice because it is used for pilots who fly single-engine aircraft, not twin-engine helicopters in which a pilot is less likely to deal with a complete stall.

By divesting two fleets of aircraft, the Army is looking to simplify the fleet as whole, one official noted. For example, when developing a new capability for a helicopter such as aircraft survivability equipment, the Army would only have to pay to make sure the new equipment can fit and function on four different types of helicopters, which would bring down integration costs.

The service also wants to reduce its eight variants of Black Hawk helicopters to just two, according to the officials, leaving the two most modern versions -- Lima models with digitized cockpits, and Mike models. The Army is hoping to embark on the digital L-model effort in FY-14.

“We will be a smaller, leaner force, but we will keep all of the modern equipment,” an official emphasized. “The motto here is buy nothing new because we are poor, but keep the best of what you've got.”

Additionally, divesting fleets would not mean firing key operators, like those who work on Kiowa fleets, the officials stressed. “Those pilots and maintainers are highly valued” and could be trained to fly different helicopters, one noted.

Because the Army is looking to divest two aircraft fleets, it logically follows that combat aviation brigade numbers will have to shrink with the fleet. However, the officials could not pinpoint how deeply the service is prepared to reduce its CAB numbers in the active and reserve components, though they acknowledged the total numbers would have to go down. The numbers are dependent on the Army's total force structure, which has yet to be decided.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno lamented at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the service would be forced to shrink under full sequestration from 490,000 active-duty troops to no more than 420,000 -- a number that "will make it very difficult to conduct even one sustained major combat operation," he said.