The U.S. Army’s Kiowa Retirement; An Opportunity Gained, Not Lost

As of FY 2015, the U.S. Army, beset by budget cuts, has been forced to expand its Aviation Restructuring Initiative, which confirms what for many observers was long on the cards after the Armed Aerial Scout competition was killed in 2013: the retirement of its OH-58D Kiowa scout helicopters.[1] Replacing the capability that was in 2013 regarded as the U.S. Army’s “number-one need, today,”[2] will now not be undergone by a manned aircraft. Instead, the U.S. Army has chosen to not only use the AH-64D/E Apache helicopter in that role (posing serious cost concerns of its own) but has chosen to pair that platform with the U.S. Army’s MQ-1C Grey Eagle fleet of unmanned aircraft under its MUM-T[3] program.[4] As will be illustrated, this is tactically an undesirable situation, and if sequestration ends, affording the U.S. Army to grow rather than shrink its aviation brigades, investment in manned, fixed-wing aircraft should take place. Before outlining how that will occur, however, it makes sense to outline why such an investment is even necessary.

The Role of the Scout Helicopter

Scout helicopters were helicopters first used in the conflict in Korea.[5] Their role was relatively simple – to penetrate into contested territory (if not airspace) ahead of friendly troop movements to spot the enemy, relaying the information back to ground commanders. From the beginning, these helicopters were deployed with pylon-mounted machine guns and unguided rockets, allowing them to punish isolated and unprotected enemy formations while carrying out observation, which was in many cases a task greatly simplified by the anti-aircraft fire they received from enemy formations.[6] The fact that they took so much fire made their ability to deliver it right back fairly important – though in the Vietnam era observation was arguably more important, given the paucity of observation and reconnaissance assets capable of discerning targets in the dense jungles of Vietnam.

As intelligence capabilities have grown exponentially, however, especially towards the end of Iraq and beginning of the surge in Afghanistan,[7] the necessity of having a manned helicopter to gather intelligence has diminished significantly. This necessity is diminished especially when one considers that the Army’s OH-58 Kiowa helicopters are relatively slow, vulnerable to ground fire, and have very limited MEDEVAC and transportation capability.[8] What has not been diminished has been the scout helicopter’s ability to quickly deliver ordnance on the targets they discover, given the less-than-existential conflicts the U.S. Army has been operating in. Because of their ability to deliver enough ordnance for most tactical situations, the accounting of operating any heterogenous aircraft fleet comes into play.

The OH-58D Armed Scout Helicopter:

bell-oh-58-kiowa-military-aircraft-wallpaper-3-140449[9]

 

Operating Cost and the OH-58D Scout Helicopter

Pictured below is the operating cost per flight hour of various U.S. Army rotary wing aircraft. Highlighted in red are attack helicopters, in particular, the AH-64 Apache family. The other helicopters are scout helicopters. As one can see, the operating cost of a scout helicopters is at most, one-half of the cost of operating attack helicopters. As a result, intelligent managers of such a fleet of aircraft would, for accounting reasons, fly the AH-64s only when it was absolutely necessary to ensure the survival of troops in contact. It is for this reason that the OH-58D, the mainstay of the Army’s scout helicopter fleet, has been described as the Army’s “workhorse” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Essentially, while Kiowas played important reconnaissance roles even as recently as the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, their roles have increasingly been turning to that of close air support, and for good reason: cost.[10]

FY15 DOD Rotary Wing Aviation O&M Reimbursable Rates ($/Hour)
Aircraft Fuel DLR Consumables Depot Other(CLS) Total
AH-64A $411 $3,329 $745 $140 $1,639 $6,264
AH-64D $411 $3,329 $745 $436 $1,639 $6,560
OH-58C $73 $408 $116 $61 $405 $1,063
OH-58D $119 $1,500 $499 $61 $752 $2,931
A/MH-6M $112 $10 $81 $61 $1,545 $1,809

[11]

Replacing these assets with already-procured ones like the AH-64E and the MQ-1C makes sense, at least in the short-term, given the lack of funding to the federal government as a whole. However, tactically, and especially given that more OH-58s are now being used in a strike role, this poses problems. The first problem is that the MQ-1C typically operates at a much higher altitude than an OH-58, being relatively large and optimized for medium-altitude persistent flight. It is rather difficult to fly a MQ-1C through canyons in the way one can with a scout helicopter. Secondly, compared to an OH-58D, the MQ-1C lacks weapons capability, being only equipped with four AGM-114K Hellfire laser-guided missiles, while the OH-58 typically has seven Hydra 70 laser-guided rockets with an additional .50 caliber machine gun pod.[12] Finally, the MQ-1C is a division-level asset, with possibly only as many as 31 ground control stations being procured.[13]

It is conceivable that these issues of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle might be overcome by other means, but to top it off, the MQ-1C even has the same sensor payload as the OH-58, meaning that given that OH-58s tend to operate at lower altitudes, MQ-1C sensors will not perform as well – and finding the enemy will be more difficult.

Given the budgetary constraints of the U.S. Army, however, such a stance is understandable –especially as it arguably augments the capability of AH-64 crews to protect themselves. If the Army is to resuscitate the armed scout helicopter, however, it should at least consider an “outside the box” solution; that solution being purchasing fixed-wing aircraft.

The Air Tractor AT-802U– or something like it.

at802u10[14]

Given that we have established that armed helicopters are going to be used more for strike than for reconnaissance in the future, given the proliferation of tactical UAVs, it makes sense to consider a replacement platform which can conduct reconnaissance but can also destroy targets of opportunity as they arise. The platform which arguably makes quite a lot of sense in this role is the Air Tractor AT-802U. Designed primarily to be a fire-fighting aircraft (but with crop-dusting variants) the Air Tractor has notably been exported to the UAE Special Forces Aviation. It is highly maneuverable, especially at low altitudes[15] and has been armored to deal with anti-aircraft fire.[16] More importantly, the operating and acquisition costs of the aircraft are extremely low (the manufacturer claims $400 per flight hour), it is capable of operating from rough airstrips in forward-deployed positions, and can stay airborne for up to 10 hours – with a 2,500lb payload. Perhaps most relevantly, it has a fearsome array of armaments that can be mounted onboard; twin .50 cal Gatling guns with 2,600 rounds and 2.75” laser-guided rockets being literally the tip of the iceberg.[17]

Naturally, there are downsides to the U.S. Army operating this aircraft. For one, the U.S. Air Force will likely oppose any effort for the U.S. Army to operate fixed-wing aircraft – an idea which has been proposed and successively shot down, with the A-10 ground attack machine.[18] Secondly, while deploying from forward airstrips sounds great on paper, OH-58s can be landed pretty much anywhere; an Air Tractor would need enough space to be undeployable in certain scenarios. Thirdly, even the loss of the minimal flexibility for medevac and transport that the OH-58 does have would be rued by Army commanders, and understandably. But the effectiveness of the Air Tractor in close air support roles would far outpoint that of the OH-58, and in reconnaissance it would be of comparable, if not far superior capability, due to its increased endurance, higher speed, and capability to operate at low altitudes.
Hence, while the Army’s retirement of the OH-58 helicopter entails a loss of capability (especially in cost-saving) by procuring fixed-wing aircraft, they may be able to not only replace their capabilities, but upgrade them. If sequestration were to end, the U.S. Army would do itself a favor by at least considering this route.

[1] http://breakingdefense.com/2013/01/army-still-searching-for-their-holy-grail-a-decision-on-armed-a/ , http://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/defense/2014-03-05/presidents-fy2015-defense-budget-retires-oh-58-kiowas

[2]http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2013/April/Pages/GivenBudgetUncertainty,ArmedAerialScoutHoveringinLimbo.aspx

[3] Manned-UnManned-Teaming.

[4]http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2013/April/Pages/GivenBudgetUncertainty,ArmedAerialScoutHoveringinLimbo.aspx

[5] http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/loh.htm, http://www.transportation.army.mil/museum/transportation%20museum/medvachelo.htm

[6] http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htairfo/articles/20150302.aspx

[7] http://www.bga-aeroweb.com/Defense/RQ-11-Raven.html – Procurement of RQ-11 Ravens is arguably the best example of this expansion.

[8] See here for the extent of transport capability – which might make it slightly difficult to fire the unguided rockets on that platform. http://woolpr.com/wp-content/uploads/bell-oh-58-kiowa-military-aircraft-wallpaper-3-140449.jpg

[9] http://woolpr.com/wp-content/uploads/bell-oh-58-kiowa-military-aircraft-wallpaper-3-140449.jpg

[10] https://medium.com/war-is-boring/drones-and-apaches-are-the-armys-new-aerial-scouts-and-not-everyone-is-thrilled-dbf482f1f897 ; though this example demonstrates that as late as 2011, Kiowas were being used as reconnaissance platforms.

[11] http://www.asafm.army.mil/offices/office.aspx?officecode=1400

[12] http://www.deagel.com/Unmanned-Combat-Air-Vehicles/MQ-1C-Gray-Eagle_a000125001.aspx

[13] Typically, 1 ground control station can operate only 1 aircraft (as the aircraft can be put up into 8 hour orbits for 24-hour surveillance) but the Army’s ground control stations may be able to control 2 aircraft simultaneously. Either way, it is not at all comparable to the fleet size and availability of the OH-58. http://www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/logistics_material_readiness/acq_bud_fin/SARs/14-F-0402_DOC_55_MQ-1CGrayEagleDecember2013SAR.PDF (Page 5)

http://osimint.com/2013/09/10/mq-1c-at-el-mirage-flight-test-facility/

[14] http://i31.servimg.com/u/f31/09/01/13/73/at802u10.jpg

[15] See 2:14 for an incredibly tight turn radius (though, admittedly, it likely suffers from a poor roll rate) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYv6Y4Qq96A

[16] http://defense-update.com/newscast/0609/news/crop_dusters_180609.html

[17] http://www.agairupdate.com/article_detail.php?_kp_serial=00000326

[18] However, it should be noted that the Army currently operates fixed-wing aircraft anyway, commonly referred to as “funnies”: http://www.janes.com/article/37638/us-army-to-field-king-air-based-vader-special-mission-aircraft http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2014/01/22/save_the_a-10__give_it_to_the_army_107047.html

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