Over the last dozen years, rotorcraft have been the most successful part of the Army’s modernization program. Despite occasional mis-steps, the service has achieved major gains in performance at modest cost by upgrading proven airframes like the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, the CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter, and UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter. Army aviators seem to have adopted the mantra that if something isn’t broken, then there’s no need to fix it — it just needs to be enhanced as new technologies become available.
However, there comes a time when even the most respected rotorcraft need to be retired, and that point is approaching for the OH-58 Kiowa. The Kiowa is what’s called an armed reconnaissance helicopter — a “scout” helicopter — meaning it supports ground forces with both tactical information and firepower. It has served America’s soldiers well from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and can probably continue doing so with appropriate cockpit and sensor upgrades for another 20 years.
But Kiowa is an old helicopter with significant performance limitations that cannot be resolved through the upgrade process. How old? Well, it began operating the year I graduated from high school (1969) and I’m in my sixties now. Army planners recognized two decades ago that a successor would be needed. The first two efforts at acquiring a replacement failed, so now the service is back for a third try, and time is beginning to run out.
It will probably take a decade to design, develop and test a next-generation scout helicopter, and then several hundred will need to be produced at an affordable annual rate. So even though Kiowa might remain in service until 2030, the Army needs to get its successor under way. As part of that process, it tested five off-the-shelf possibilities last year — helicopters already in production that might provide low-cost alternatives to the OH-58. None of them proved sufficiently capable. So now the Army must figure out how to fund a clean-sheet design in an austere budget environment.
The most interesting option by far that has appeared on the horizon is Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider, a novel combination of mature technologies that provides revolutionary performance gains at an evolutionary cost. The company says that for $15 million per airframe, it can deliver a rotorcraft with twice the speed and endurance of Kiowa, while reducing the turning radius and acoustic signature by 50 percent. It will also carry 40 percent more payload and hover at much higher altitudes, fulfilling a longstanding operational requirement.
The combination of coaxial main rotors with a push propeller in the tail would enable the S-97 to do remarkable things on the battlefield. For instance, rather than over-flying a surface target it is attacking with its guns and missiles, it could actually back up to minimize danger. And being able to stay airborne for nearly three hours at a cruising speed of 250 miles per hour would allow a small number of airframes to cover a much bigger area than Kiowas ever could.
But in this budget environment, what’s likely to impress Army planners most is that all of the improved functionality comes with a price-tag not much higher than the cost of more conventional rotorcraft. The reason that’s possible is that the Raider doesn’t require technology breakthroughs to succeed; it just combines existing technologies in an imaginative way. Of course, some grizzled veterans in the Army acquisition community think this sounds too good to be true. But Sikorsky and its suppliers have already put up the money to build two prototypes that will start flying sometime next year.
It’s usually a good sign when contractors don’t insist on getting taxpayer money before implementing a new idea. Sikorsky’s parent, United Technologies, is not known for risking company money on long-shots, and its chairman has an extensive background in aerospace manufacturing. So indications are the S-97 will be a strong contender in any competition to replace Kiowa. If it ultimately prevails, the armed reconnaissance mission likely will be in good shape to mid-century.
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