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Sunday, May 1, 2005

Filling Comanche's Shoes

Douglas W. Nelms

The U.S. Army's soon-to-be-decided competitions for new reconnaissance and light utility helicopters could tip the balance of market share among manufacturers.

The U.S. Army's solicitation for a new armed reconnaissance helicopter is concise and simple. The Army "seeks to acquire and field an ARH that will utilize Non-Developmental Item (NDI) aircraft and associated support equipment to conduct armed reconnaissance to fight for actionable combat information to enable joint/combined air-ground maneuver execution of mobile strike, close combat, and vertical maneuver operations across the full spectrum of military operations."

The armed reconnaissance helicopter also "will provide precision capability through lethal organic fires, dynamic employment of joint networked fires, and responsive target acquisition/identification for full spectrum, day and night operations; be rapidly deployable for global employment against a distributive, highly adaptive threat on an asymmetrical battlefield employing conventional and unconventional methods; enable the air-ground maneuver commander to `see-understand-act first' with a warfighter-in-the-loop to provide proactive decision making, assure critical reaction time and maneuver space, and set the conditions for the joint/combined air-ground maneuver team to `finish decisively'."

Well, OK, it's concise and simple for anyone who happens to be in the military bureaucracy. What they are really saying is that they want a helicopter that is cheap, fast and highly maneuverable, that can find the enemy and kill `em, and if it can't kill `em, it can bring in somebody who can.

The armed reconnaissance helicopter bidding is one of two competitions the Army is conducting to recover from 2004's cancellation of the RAH-66 Comanche program by quickly putting new airc-raft into a helicopter fleet that is increasingly aged and, in some cases, ill-suited to the missions the service faces. The other program is the Light Utility Helicopter competition to replace hundreds of Vietnam-era UH-1s and OH-58As and Cs.

A key objective of the fast-paced procurement programs is to make good on the pledge of Army leaders when they cancelled Comanche that funding for that defunct program would be preserved for Army aviation's increasingly urgent operational needs. The longer the Army takes to select and procure new aircraft, the more at risk it is of having the billions in old Comanche funds siphoned off for other defense needs.

To compete for the armed reconnaissance helicopter program's rather broad, yet definitive role, two companies-------Bell Helicopter and Boeing--are submitting bids based on modified versions of off-the-shelf aircraft.

The Army's request for proposals, issued Dec. 9, 2004, calls for 368 aircraft to replace 354 OH-58D Kiowa Warriors. The competition is now in its quiet stage, with the bidders and Lt. Col. Neil Thurgood, armed reconnaissance helicopter project manager, not permitted to discuss it. Before that restriction was imposed, John Bean, senior vice president, government business unit for Bell, did give Rotor & Wing a briefing on the project.

Bell is submitting a rendition of its 407, an upgraded version of the 206/OH-58 family further upgraded with a more powerful engine, a sophisticated avionics package and advanced weapons/survivability systems. Bell will be selling the civil version of the upgraded 407, designated the 407X. In unveiling the 407X at this year's Heli-Expo in Anaheim, Calif., Bell CEO Mike Redenbaugh said customers have indicated a desire for a 407 with a more powerful engine and low operating costs--giving Bell economies of scale that could drive down the basic airframe and engine cost for the armed reconnaissance contender. Bean said the standardization of components and maintenance between the aircraft would be things from which the Army could benefit if Bell wins. Boeing's submission is a version of MD Helicopters' AH-6 Mission Enhanced Little Bird with a similar upgraded engine and integration package.

A selection on the winning bid is expected in early June. However, a Defense Acquisition Board review of the program is set for June 23, which means the decision could slip.

The solicitation for bids calls for firm, fixed-price options for the first two lots of low-rate initial production, with a $5.2-million ceiling on the first 38 aircraft. The aircraft are to be delivered in two low-rate cycles, followed by four full production lots over the life of the program. The program is valued at roughly $2.5 billion. As with virtually all current military aircraft, the major value will be in the integrated systems on board the basic airframe. Bean said Bell would be the systems integrator leader, but will have Lockheed Martin-Orlando as a team member to integrate some of the Comanche avionics software technology into the aircraft "to reduce the cycle time and mitigate the risk in integrating the mission equipment package into the Army's net-centric environment." The advantage of having Lockheed Martin on the Bell team is "to keep the Comanche technology intact," he said.

Other team members include Rockwell Collins, which would provide the Common Avionics Architecture System for integration of the avionics, survivability equipment and engine controls; FLIR Systems, providing the target acquisition sensor suite for integration into the mission equipment package; and Lockheed Martin/Army Technical Integration Center, to facilitate the aircraft's networked battlefield capabilities. Bell, Computer Sciences Corp., L3 Communications and FlightSafety International would provide the complete training package, from Flight School XXI with its full-motion simulators and aircraft to unit level training in the field. Software bridges would be provided at the unit level to allow distributed interactive simulation with Flight School XXI.

Boeing also would do its own integration and also use Rockwell Collins for the common avionics. Boeing will team with CAE for simulation and training, BAE Systems for aircraft survival equipment and Raytheon for parts of the avionics package plus a flir system.

For an engine for both the 407X and its military variant, Bell went to the new Honeywell HTS900, rated at 925 shp. for takeoff and 837 shp. continuous with dual-channel full-authority digital engine controls (FADEC). The HTS900 is an advanced, hybrid version of the LTS-101 and T-800, with a planned growth to the 1,000-shp. HTS1000 and ultimately to a small, heavy-fuel engine in the 1,200-shp. range.

For its engine, Boeing has partnered with Rolls-Royce, which already has its 250 series engines in the MD500/OH-6 family of helicopters as well as the OH-58D and the 407. The Boeing entry will have a 250-C30R/3M with FADEC, rated at 813 shp. According to Alex Youngs, Rolls-Royce director of business development for helicopters, the 250 family on the OH-58Ds and AH/MH-6s has accrued more than 150,000 combat hours. Plans for the -C30R/30M are a mid-life upgrade to a 950-shp. 250-C3X, Youngs said. While both entries are off-the-shelf airframes available to the civil market, neither Bell nor Boeing is discussing possible foreign sales of their militarized versions.

One of the biggest questions in the competition involves MD Helicopters' rather tenuous hold on life. Troubled by long-time customers bailing out in favor of other manufacturers, it was struck a serious blow early in March by the cancellation of an order for seven MD900s for the Netherlands national police. That agency was operating one MD900 under lease from MD while awaiting delivery of the seven ordered. Deliveries were initially scheduled for 2004, but that was pushed to early 2005 for the first two aircraft. When it became obvious that the contractor, Helifly N.V., would be unable to deliver the two on time and concerns grew about proper support for any delivered aircraft, the Dutch interior minister cancelled the order.

At press time, Boeing was not discussing the competition except to announce its team members, which includes MD. However, Boeing was certainly aware of MD's predicament when it assembled its team. Presumably it has plans to take over MD should it go under, provide it enough funds to continue building the required number of airframes or arrange for the airframes to be built under license.

MD CEO Henk Schaeken said Boeing has already provided funds to allow MD to pay debt, satisfying its vendors and improving its spares and parts problems.

It's unclear how this will impact on the Army's decision. Boeing obviously would have to satisfied Pentagon officials that it could fulfil the contract should it win.

In seeking a new light utility helicopter, the Army is looking to replace its elderly UH-1s and OH-58s and gain a low-cost complement to the UH-60. It has stated a need for 322 aircraft to be used for general light support for active Army and National Guard units within the United States, with 204 going to the Guard and 118 going to active Army components.

Of the 204 aircraft going to the Guard, 60 would be for the medevac role, going to four air ambulance companies with 15 aircraft per company, according to Col. Paul Kelly, National Guard Bureau division chief, aviation and safety. The remainder would be split up among six security and support battalions, with 24 aircraft per battalion.

The medevac units are considered "generating-force medevac," Kelly said. The Guard today has a mission to provide medevac support to Army installations. Normally, that is provided by active Army medevac units, but as those units get deployed the Guard's wartime mission is to fill the void. The Guard companies assigned to the "generating-force medevac" role are mobilized units under Operation Noble Eagle, created for the war on global terrorism. "So we have had a number of units that now fly UH-1Vs in support of these installations as needed," Kelly said.

The Army thought it had gained a replacement for the UH-1 Huey with the UH-60. Now, 20 or so years later, the service still needs a light utility helicopter to perform missions for which the UH-60 is too big or too expensive. Introduction of the light utility helicopter would also allow the retirement of OH-58As and Cs, which also date back to the Vietnam era.

Although a request for proposals is still pending, the Army did issue a draft request for proposal for industry comment on acquiring and fielding "a light utility helicopter system that satisfies the requirements...in support of the Army Aviation Transformation Objectives." The LUH procurement is valued at $1-$2 billion. Along with it being an off-the-shelf helicopter, the light utility helicopter's primary requirement is that it have an FAA type certificate and can "be maintained to retain that certification throughout the life cycle," according to the draft proposal request.

Basic military requirements, such as crashworthiness, are expected to be specified to U.S. Federal Aviation Regulation standards. The request for proposals also is expected to call for an aircraft that is IFR-capable in accordance with FAA standards, but not necessarily IFR certified--although there could be a future requirement that it be IFR certified.

Bell plans to offer its 210, an upgraded UH-1H, as its light utility helicopter entry. While the 210 is IFR-capable, it is not IFR certified--should that requirement arise. However, a Bell executive said the company "would do whatever it takes to meet the Army's requirement."

AgustaWestland plans to submit its A109 Power, an aircraft that has already demonstrated its capabilities and maintainability with the U.S. Coast Guard's Hitron program, according to Steve Moss, president of AgustaWestland Inc. The Hitron program "is an example of how we can provide operational readiness at a fixed cost to the government, so we already have a strong program operating with the government that is very similar to what the Army is looking for." Moss noted that the A109 Power is flying in a similar configuration with the governments of South Africa, Sweden and Italy.

Eurocopter has not made a final decision on which aircraft it would offer, pending release of the request for proposals. However, American Eurocopter's senior vice president, strategy-business development, Eric Walden, said the EC135 would be the most likely entrant. The EC145 could also be a candidate, but is probably too expensive. Eurocopter may compete with the EC635, the militarized version of its EC135, although the LUH will not be "militarized," or heavily armed with combat capabilities. The EC635 is.

Neither MD nor Boeing have helicopters that fit the expected request for proposals, and Sikorsky is not expected to submit a military version of the S-76, which would be too expensive. Sikorsky could submit a scaled down, bare-bones version of the UH-60 Black Hawk, but that is not anticipated.

Both the UH-1 and OH-58 that the light utility helicopter would replace are single-engine aircraft. Of the three most likely candidates, only the Bell 210 is single-engine. Once the request is issued, the final decisions will be made by the competing companies as to the specific aircraft type to enter. Bell certainly has twin-engine aircraft such as the 212, while Eurocopter could drop down to the EC130 and AgustaWestland to the A119 should a single-engine aircraft be required. It is expected, however, that the final request for proposals will not specifically designate the number of engines, but rather the power requirements available from the engines used.

The light utility helicopter would not require any armament, since the proposal specifically states that it will operate "in permissive, non-hostile, non-combat environments." However, it also specified that those aircraft allocated to the Guard may be deployed overseas to operate in a "permissive environment" where the host government maintains control of the airspace.

The Guard Bureau's Kelly said the light utility helicopter will be deployable worldwide on missions such as humanitarian efforts in South America. This would release UH-60s currently performing those missions for the warfighting duties. However, the light utility helicopter "probably will not be used for missions such as drug interdiction in Colombia," he said.

The Guard has OH-58As and Cs involved in a special Reconnaissance and Interdiction Detachment program, working with civil law enforcement agencies to fight drug trafficking within the United States (Rotor & Wing, November 2002, page 16). Those aircraft would be retired and replaced by the light utility helicopter, Kelly said. "We see the mission of the security and support battalions to build on what the RAID units are doing now," he said. "We'll incorporate the RAID detachments into the homeland security/defense missions." Those detachments would continue to do counterdrug missions and take on other homeland security, defense and domestic support work, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and civil disturbance operations." The security and support aircraft would also perform missions such as search and rescue and casualty evacuations, a role that all Army aviation platforms have as a secondary mission, Kelly said.

The Guard expects to take delivery of its first light utility helicopter "within the next couple of years," Kelly said, "probably around fiscal year 2007 or later, but not too much later," which puts the program on "a very tight time line." Once those aircraft are fielded, all the UH-1s and OH-58A/Cs would be retired.

The light utility helicopter would "serve many current and future needs that now are being performed by very old type aircraft, which have served us very well in the past," Kelly said, adding that the aircraft "is going to be a great movement forward."

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