Warplanes: Old, Reliable, And All We Got

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March 25, 2009: After two years of delays, and huge increases in costs, the U.S. Army cancelled the ARH-70 scout helicopter last year. This helicopter was supposed to replace 340 OH-58s, a model that was introduced four decades ago. The army was supposed to get the first of its new ARH-70 scout helicopters by September, 2008. But two years ago that slipped to sometime in 2010. The ARH-70 was supposed to cost $8-9 million each. That was the 2005 estimate. But at the end, the manufacturer, Bell Helicopter, wanted over $12 million each. The army originally wanted to buy 368 ARH-70s. But with the delays and price increases, that army gave up after three years of effort.

The current OH-58s are wearing out. Those used in Iraq are in the air 72 hours a month. Those in Afghanistan,  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. In addition, 20 OH-58s were lost to battle damage. The current solution is to spend several billion dollars to refurbish and upgrade the current fleet, to keep the OH-58 in service for another 10-12 years. It is believed that a replacement will be found and built before then.

The 2.8 ton ARH-70A was a militarized Bell 407. The helicopter it was replacing, the OH-58D, was itself a militarized version of the older Bell 206. ARH stands for armed reconnaissance helicopter. ARH-70 had a max speed of 243 kilometers an hour, and max range of 577 kilometers. It was supposed to be a straightforward conversion. A new engine and tail assembly, plus adding a fire control and weapons system similar to that installed in the OH-58D. But problems were encountered, that took more time, and money, than Bell expected, to fix. If you follow defense procurement, you've heard that many times before. The ARH-70 experience will loom over the effort to develop another replacement.

The delays and price increases are attributed to the usual problems. The manufacturer over-promised, and the army keeps adding new features to the fire control and cockpit electronics. The manufacturer knows how this works, and have lawyers, tech writers, Congressional lobbyists and public relations teams standing by to come up with perfectly good, and legal, reasons for the delays and cost increases. The military, and the taxpayers, usually relent and pay up. Not always, but usually. Collective amnesia then sets in, and the process is repeated endlessly. But in the last decade, that has begun to change. Troublesome projects are increasingly at risk, and that acts as an incentive to make things work. The ARH-70 was a sharp reminder that, even when you are aware of how you can screw it up, you can still drop the ball.

The OH-58D Kiowa Warrior 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-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 will include new, and improved, electronics, but also the possibility of a much needed new engine. Over the decades, the new equipment has been added, without an increase in engine power. For a scout helicopter, the OH-58 was getting more sluggish as it got older.

 


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