Warplanes: The Last American Scout Helicopter


March 2, 2015:  The U.S. Army has decided to replace its lightweight scout helicopters with UAVs. This was made possible because the latest version (AH-64E) of the helicopter gunship is equipped to monitor, in real time, what UAVs see and even take control of some UAVs. In effect these UAVs, especially the Predator-like MQ-1C and smaller RQ-7 are replacing the scout helicopters.

This decision was not new. By 2013 the army had decided to stop looking for a new scout helicopters and instead went with an improved version of the Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter (the OH-58F). The army had long wanted to buy a new scout helicopter design, preferably a new design or using an existing civilian model. But years of evaluations led the army to conclude that the fifty year old Bell 206 model, 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 as the OH-58, 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 2015 and the first of over 300 OH-58Fs (upgrades or new aircraft) will enter service in 2016. But at point the army finally decided that the age of the manned scout helicopter was over. This solved the problem that the scout helicopters were always the most dangerous to fly because, after all, they went ahead of the helicopter gunships and ground troops to, well, scout ahead. The growing number (and lethality) of portable anti-aircraft weapons made driving a scout helicopter more and more dangerous. Time to send in the droids.

This move was also made necessary because the current U.S. Army fleet of 230 OH-58Ds is wearing out. Ten years of war hit the OH-58Ds hard. Those used in Iraq were in the air an average 72 hours a month, 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. This was more of a problem than the battle damage as only twenty OH-58Ds were destroyed in combat since 2001. Thus the decision to spend several billion dollars to refurbish and upgrade the current fleet to the OH-58F standard solves the wear and tear dilemma and keeps the OH-58 in service into the late 2020s. The replacements are no longer in doubt, they are already in service as UAVs equipped to work closely with manned helicopters and commanders on the ground.

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 four Hellfire (anti-vehicle) or Stinger (anti-aircraft) missiles, or 14 70mm unguided (or guided) rockets. 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 five percent lighter than the OH-58D, which helps a bit.

To help ease the workload on the OH-58Ds, the army reorganized its light aviation battalions by removing some OH-58 helicopters and adding RQ-7 Shadow UAVs. The new battalions have 29 aircraft, eight 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 eight hours per sortie, about three times longer than the OH-58, while the new MQ-1C can do four times better than that. The MQ-1C was originally seen as a replacement for the smaller RQ-7. However the RQ-7 is far from obsolete and has proven more useful than expected and thus remained in service. But when the RQ-7s wear out the MQ-1C, which is large enough to carry Hellfire missiles will replace it. The RQ-7 has to stick with lighter and less capable missiles. Nevertheless the army is experimenting with using even smaller (50-100 kg) UAVs to scout with the AH-64. There would be more of these smaller UAVs for each AH-64 or group of AH-64s providing more comprehensive scouting and more resilience to combat losses. 




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