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Monday, June 1, 2009

Editor’s Notebook: And the Winner of the New ARH Program Is...

Ernie Stephens

David R. Oliver, the chief operating officer of EADS North America, parent company of America Eurocopter, announced that his organization will be teaming up with Lockheed Martin to build the Armed Scout Helicopter 645, a gun-slinging version of the UH-72A twin-engine, light utility helicopter currently being delivered to U.S. Army National Guard units. The announcement was made during the opening day of the Army Aviator’s Association of America’s annual convention in Nashville, Tenn., known better as Quad-A.

"I said to myself, EADS has just won the ARH program."

Please note that the Department of Defense has as yet to officially solicit bids for an armed "scout" helicopter, EADS’ name for something that walks, quacks and swims like the duck formerly called the armed reconnaissance helicopter (ARH); the program won by Bell Helicopter’s 407 in 2006, but cancelled by Congress in 2008 for being late and over budget. The ARH was supposed to replace the aging OH-58 Kiowa, also a Bell product.

As soon as the words left Mr. Oliver’s lips, I said to myself, "EADS has just won the ARH program." Later that day, several people asked why I was so quick to take this position, especially when you consider how quickly the wheels can fall off a proposal during the approval process. In defense of my knee-jerk reaction, I offered several slices of my often-convoluted logic to support my position.

First of all, the 645 will be based on a platform that’s already in service with the U.S. Army. Granted, an offering from Boeing would probably be based on the AH-6 Little Bird, and if Bell should take another bite at the apple, its design would more than likely be loosely based on the OH-58 Kiowa, which are both versions of operational military rotorcraft. But what gives the 645 a leg-up in my mind is that it is the most recently accepted design in service. So, I think the Pentagon will find the 645 easier to evaluate and accept, since the basic platform was vetted so recently.

The second part of my argument relates to the first part, in that the 645 will be so much like the UH-72A, spare parts and maintenance procedures will be common between the two. Just ask the folks at Southwest Airlines how much time, effort and money they’ve saved through the years by flying one aircraft model, the Boeing 737. I suppose there will be some variations between the 645 and the UH-72A, but even if half of the parts can be interchanged, that’s a 50 percent reduction in the number of non-interchangeable parts taking up space at the repair depot. Swapping seats, skids, doors, etc. between a Lakota and its pistol-packing cousin will be a snap.

Since I have no personal experience flying military missions, I will defer to a former Black Hawk pilot who told me it was harder to fly formations when the slower AH-6s were escorting UH-60s. Even with all the stuff that goes "boom" hanging off its side, the 645 should be able to keep up with the Hawks with greater ease.

Then there’s training. If the Army chooses the 645, transitioning a pilot into it will mirror most of the process used to check-out a pilot in the UH-72A. And besides a few software changes, current multi-million-dollar Lakota flight simulators will be able to perform double duty by training the gunship aviators — uh, I mean the armed scout helicopter aviators.

EADS also has a pretty good reputation in the industry. That’s not to say that Boeing doesn’t. But it also means it doesn’t have the black eye Bell got with the ARH.

But this morning, Mike, a recently transitioned UH-72A pilot I know, said he wasn’t so sure if I was right about the ease with which EADS could make the Lakota work as an armed platform. He started flying military hardware shortly after the Earth cooled, so I listened carefully when he said the UH-72A Lakota’s airframe, in his opinion, wasn’t beefy enough. He feels the modifications I thought would be relatively simple would be complicated enough to nullify my arguments, and that the added weight of guns and a stiffened hull to carry them would severely rob the 645 of power and useful payload.

Having weighed the above pros and cons of the 645, and taking into account political variables, I still think EADS will be the winner of an armed scout or reconnaissance helicopter competition. All they have to do now is not shoot themselves in the foot with it.

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