Warplanes: Another Vietnam Vet Vanishes

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December 1, 2017: In late 2017 the U.S. Army was finally able to retire the last of its Vietnam era OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters. Since the late 1980s the few remaining OH-58s were used for training army helicopter pilots in combat maneuvers, something the OH-58 had a lot of experience in. The OH-58 was always known as a pilot-friendly aircraft and it proved ideal for the 20 day combat maneuver course, given at the end of the helicopter pilot training, to teach new pilots dangerous, but life-saving, skills. The OH-58 was also very inexpensive to operate but were eventually replaced by the UH-72A. Most retired OH-58s were offered to law enforcement agencies, where they were popular because they were easy and inexpensive to operate and designed for surveillance and reconnaissance work.

The retirement was long overdue. By 2009 the OH-58s are wearing out. Those used in Iraq were 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 by 2009. The decision was made to spend several billion dollars to refurbish and upgrade the surviving OH-58s and keep them in service for another 10-12 years. It was believed that a replacement would be found and built before then.

While many OH-58s were refurbished just to keep them operating for training and reconnaissance some were refurbished and upgraded (with better electronics and a fire control system) as the OH-58D. This version had a top speed of 226 kilometers per hour, and a range of 241 kilometers. It had a mast-mounted sight, which carried a powerful FLIR (heat sensing camera) and a laser designator. The OH-58D was lightly armed, and usually only carried four Hellfire (anti-vehicle) or Stinger (anti-aircraft) missiles, or 14 70mm unguided (or guided) rockets. The upgrades included some improvements in the 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.

The 2009 decision to keep the OH-58 in service was prompted by the 2008 cancellation of a promising replacement; the ARH-70 scout helicopter. This helicopter was supposed to replace 340 OH-58s, a model had already been in service over 40 years. The army was supposed to get the first of its new ARH-70 scout helicopters by late 2008. But in 2007 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 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.

Built by European firm EADS, the UH-72A is a militarized version of the EC145, a helicopter long popular with law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. The EC145 was introduced in 2004 and was immediately recognized as a successful design and became very popular with its users. The UH-72A purchase is a side effect of the cancellation of the Comanche scout helicopter in 2004 (mainly because of constantly increasing costs). Comanche was perceived as too expensive and complex. The UH-72A mainly replaces the few remaining UH-1 (“Huey”) helicopters, which have been retired because of old age. But it was also capable of doing a lot of the work the OH-58 proved so adept at.

The UH-72A Lakota Light Utility Helicopters has about the same capacity as the UH-1 “Huey”, despite its smaller size. The 3.6 ton UH-72A has a top speed of 260 kilometers an hour and a max range of 660 kilometers. Average endurance per sortie is about two hours. The helicopter has a crew of two and can carry up to eight passengers or about three-quarters of a ton of cargo or weapons. The UH-72A has been popular with its users and has had a readiness (for flying) rate of 90 percent. By 2013 army had bought 312 of the 347 UH-72As it planned on getting. Most have already been delivered and apparently no more will be ordered because of budget cuts.

 


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