Warplanes: Anything Goes

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May 1, 2009: The U.S. Army has been unable to find a light helicopter that meets its requirements for a new armed scout helicopter. So now the army is looking further afield, even at UAVs. Two existing possibilities are the 1.5 ton RQ-8A and the two ton A160T. Both of these are based on light manned helicopters. So maybe a UAV version of a heavier commercial chopper, like the 2.7 ton Bell 407.

Four years ago, the army tried to convert the Bell 407 into a new scout helicopter for American use. The 2.8 ton ARH-70 (a militarized Bell-407), was to replace the elderly OH-58D scout helicopter. But the ARH-70 ran into problems getting the new military electronic systems adapted to the Bell-407. This should not have been a difficult problem. Both the contractors and the military people said so. But the electronics intended for militarizing the Bell-407 were not as ready for prime time as advertised. Bad leadership and poor supervision, plus unforeseen problems and unsuccessful attempts to overcome them, caused the ARH-70 to be cancelled two years ago.

The Bell 407 is a very successful commercial helicopter. And the army asked other manufacturers of light helicopters to offer proposals. None met the army's requirements. Originally, the Bell 407, which costs about $2.4 million each, was to have been militarized and delivered to the army for about $5 million each. At the time of the ARH-70 cancellation, per aircraft cost had risen to about $10 million. The Iraqi version will have to cost more like $5 million each to work.

A UAV version of the Bell 407 would be able to carry more (over a ton) weapons and sensors. Of course, the big disadvantage of the UAVs is that, without people on board, there is less "situational awareness" (being able to see and feel what is around you.) But UAV and sensor manufacturers have been working on the problem. Lighter, cheaper, more powerful and reliable sensors are available. Fit a 407 UAV with a dozen or more vidcams, and use new pattern recognition (another burgeoning field) software, and you get situational awareness equal, or even superior (because of the rapid zoom and pattern recognition) to that of a manned aircraft. Or so the proponents claim. The flight crew on the ground (a pilot and one or more sensor and weapons operators) can more quickly and thoroughly scan the surrounding terrain. That's what a scout helicopter does. With a multi-barrel machine-gun and two or more Hellfire (or other lightweight) missiles, the ARH UAV would be cheaper to build (by eliminating all the gear needed to hold and protect people) and stay in the air longer (because it would not have to carry around two crew), in addition to having better ability to see and find things. Maybe. But the army is now open to new ideas, since the old ones aren't working too well.

 


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