The Army has redefined what it considers a “high-hot” flying environment, adding 2,000 feet and increasing the temperature. It might not sound like a big change, but in terms of a new Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, it's going to require industry to pull off some big technological leaps to avoid building an entirely new aircraft.
Late last year when the Army issued a “sources sought” notice to industry for a re-competition of the ARH program, after cancelling its contract with Bell-Textron for a militarized version of its civilian 407 helicopter to replace the ageing OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, the service said it was “reassessing the ARH performance requirements.” Specifically: the new helicopter must have the capability to “perform a Hover out of Ground Effect (HOGE) at 6,000 ft/95 degrees Fahrenheit.” At standard temperature, that’s almost equivalent to flying at 14,000 feet, said Larry Plaster, Boeing’s Apache Modernization manager.
The Kiowa Warrior couldn’t meet the 4,000 foot requirement unless almost everything but the seats were pulled off the airframe. For high-hot attack and reconnaissance missions, which means pretty much everywhere in Afghanistan, the Army uses the AH-64 Apache. Plaster said the Block III Apache upgrade will carry composite rotor blades to improve high-hot performance. The powerful, twin-engined CH-47 Chinook cargo hauler has little trouble operating in the rarified air and high temperatures of the Hindu Kush mountain range.
As for existing helicopters that might fit the Army’s new ARH high-hot requirement, "there are aircraft out there that can do it,” said Col. Randolph Rotte, Deputy Director for Aviation in the Army Chief of Staff’s office, speaking at the Army's Aviation Symposium here in the DC area this week.
“Because of that altitude and temperature that is pushing today’s current technology to the extreme limits. Big [helicopters] works there in those environments well, but to get it smaller to meet the needs of the manned light reconnaissance, that’s a challenge. So only those with some technological edges to it can attain that in the time frames without creating another Comanche program again which we don’t want to do with 10 to 15 years of R and D,” Rotte said.
Boeing hopes the Army will select its new AH-6S helicopter based on the Little Bird platform, for the ARH. The “S” is for stretched, as Boeing is inserting a 15 inch “plug” into the Little Bird airframe to accommodate additional avionics and maybe people. For the AH-6S to operate at the Army’s newly defined high-hot environment will require changes to both the transmission and rotor, and possibly a new engine, Plaster said.
The Army made it clear that an aerial drone won’t do as an ARH replacement. After DoD told the Army to cancel the ARH program because of cost and schedule overruns, questions were immediately raised about whether the service really needed a new helicopter, and couldn't a drone do the same job. But the Army’s top program manager, Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes, said a manned scout aircraft is “absolutely essential.” He said the new requirements definition helped the service fend off those pushing the service to turn to aerial drones for battlefield scouting.
“There’s been a great deal of interest and we were surprised at the responses we got,” said Brig. Gen. Bill Crosby, Army PEO Aviation, referring to industry's response to the Army’s ARH re-compete. “We’re going back and looking at the capabilities that are out there and trying to fine tune our path ahead as we go forward. The bottom line is there is still a requirement and in coordination with that there’s also a recognition that with the delay there’s something we’ve got to do with our Kiowas,” Crosby said.
Funds from the cancelled ARH program will be used to upgrade the Kiowa fleet. Approximately $500 million will be split between Kiowa upgrades ($38 million), funds for a new helicopter ($50 million) and the balance will be used to purchase a new Apache battalion for the Army National Guard, said Col. Vance Sales, deputy chief of staff for the Army’s budget office.