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It Just Works
by James Dunnigan
September 25, 2013

The U.S. is transferring a squadron (battalion) of combat helicopters to South Korea to reinforce the army combat aviation brigade and the 28,000 American troops already there. The new squadron has 380 troops and 30 OH-58D armed reconnaissance helicopters and will arrive in South Korea by October, as part of a program to raise U.S. troops strength slightly (to 30,000 or so) in anticipation of problems with North Korea (either more violence from the north or a collapse of the ramshackle government up there).

The OH-58 squadron will remain in South Korea indefinitely while the troops, as is customary, are rotated back to the United States after nine months and replaced. The OH-58 was originally developed as a scout for the larger and more heavily armed AH-1 and AH-64 gunships. But cheaper, lighter, and more effective sensors and weapons have turned the OH-58 into a formidable combat system by itself. The most dangerous scouting work is increasingly done by UAVs while the OH-58 has evolved into “gunship lite.”

Further evidence of this trend showed up earlier this year when the latest version of the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter (the OH-58F) made its first flight. The army had wanted to buy a new scout helicopter design by modifying an existing civilian helicopter. But years of evaluations led the army to conclude that the fifty year old Bell 206, used as the basis for the OH-58A, was still the best available. None of the new candidates were sufficiently superior to outweigh the fact that the basic Bell 206 design, as upgraded and modified since the 1960s, had more than kept pace with potential new rivals. So the army upgraded the OH-58D, with much improved electronics (Internet-like capabilities and the ability to control nearby UAVs) and pilot protection. A lot of existing components were replaced with new versions that were stronger and/or more powerful. About 60 percent of the components in the F model are new. Production begins in two years and the first of over 300 OH-58Fs (upgrades or new aircraft) will enter service in 2016. The OH-58Ds in South Korea will be among the first to receive the upgraded F models.

This move is made necessary because the current U.S. Army fleet of 230 OH-58Ds is wearing out. 10 years of war have hit the OH-58Ds hard. Those used in Iraq were in the air 72 hours a month on average, while those in Afghanistan were airborne 80 hours a month. In peacetime these choppers spend about 24 hours a month in the air. Moreover, combat use puts more stress on the aircraft. Plus there's battle damage, which included 20 destroyed in combat. The current solution is to spend several billion dollars to refurbish and upgrade the current fleet to the OH-58F standard and thus keep the OH-58 in service for another 10-12 years. It is believed that a replacement will be found and built before then, or the OH-58 will go through another round of upgrades. This has worked for other military systems (the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, the B-52 bomber, and C-130 transport) so this is not a particularly daring choice. It just works.

The OH-58D has a top speed of 226 kilometers per hour and a range of 241 kilometers. It has a mast-mounted sight, which carries a powerful FLIR (heat sensing camera) and a laser designator. The OH-58F will move the sensors to the body of the aircraft, right in front of the pilots. The OH-58D is lightly armed and usually only carries 4 Hellfire (anti-vehicle) or Stinger (anti-aircraft) missiles, or 14 70mm unguided rockets. There are now laser guided versions of these 70mm rockets available and they are ideal for light helicopters like the OH-58. The upgrades don’t change the weapons load, and OH-58D users are still arguing for a new engine. Over the decades, the new equipment and weight has been added, without an increase in engine power. For a scout helicopter the OH-58 was getting more sluggish as it got older. This was not good, even though the OH-58F is 5 percent lighter than the OH-58D, which helps a bit.

To help ease the workload on the OH-58Ds, the army is reorganizing its light aviation units by removing some OH-58 helicopters and adding RQ-7 Shadow UAVs. The new battalions have 29 aircraft, 8 of them UAVs. All this is the result of years of experience with the RQ-7 and some tests, using UAVs as scouts for helicopter gunships or in cooperation with scout helicopters, rather than the traditional scout helicopter (like the OH-58) operating exclusively. The tests were successful, and the army is updating its tactics as well.

In the last decade scout helicopters have been doing a lot less scouting, having been replaced by MQ-1C, RQ-7, and Raven UAVs. The scout helicopter pilots are relieved at having UAVs take over some of the more dangerous missions. In particular, the scout helicopter pilots are glad to lose the job of going in to "draw enemy fire" (and thus reveal where the enemy is). This sort of thing has gotten a lot of scout helicopter pilots killed. But there are still situations where the superior situational awareness (two pilots with four eyes, four ears, and two noses) of humans is preferable. There are some even more basic considerations. The RQ-7 can stay in the air for up to 8 hours per sortie, about 3 times longer than the OH-58, while the new MQ-1C can do 4 times better than that.

The army is also equipping some of its AH-64 helicopter gunships with digital communications that enables them to see what the UAVs are seeing. The OH-58s often scout for the AH-64s, finding targets. Now the RQ-7s can do it better, by letting the AH-64 pilots see what the RQ-7 has detected. There are also systems that allow the AH-64 or OH-58 pilots to take control of UAVs. The OH-58F will have both of these capabilities. Meanwhile, it's expected that the army aviation battalions will gain more UAVs and lose helicopters.


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