NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Army repeatedly stressed at the Army Aviation Association of America's annual summit that the biggest gap it has is the one left open when it retired its armed reconnaissance helicopter — the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior — without replacing the fleet with a new aircraft.
And the service won't get to replace it with the first variant of its Future Vertical Lift aircraft because a medium-lift helicopter — that would meet more of an Army utility mission — is seen as a bigger need across the joint force, according to Army officials at AAAA. Since FVL is a joint program, the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations also have a strong voice in the matter.
The Army is gearing up to start its FVL program of record that will field a family of new helicopters starting in the early 2030s with a medium-lift variant it is calling capability set 3. The future variants are currently organized as capability sets 1 through 5, with 1 being the lightest aircraft, where an armed reconnaissance helicopter would fit, and 5 being a heavy-lift cargo aircraft.
The Army has tried three times to replace the Kiowa Warrior with a new helicopter. The first attempt was with the Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche, which was canceled in 2004 after spending $7 billion on the program and never reaching full-rate production.
Then Bell Helicopter’s armed reconnaissance helo — the ARH-70 Arapaho — was canceled in 2008 due to delays and cost overruns.
Finally, the Army hosted a demonstration where it put industry's armed aerial scout offerings through the paces to try to find something that could be purchased quickly to replace the Vietnam-era Kiowas. But as declining defense budgets loomed in 2013, the service determined its wallet was too skinny to buy anything and decided instead to fund a service-life extension program for the Kiowa.
The Army retired its Kiowas in 2014 as sequestration threatened to cut every Army aviation program at the knees. The Army came up with the Aviation Restructure Initiative designed to make trade-offs where the service thought it made sense rather than accept across-the-board cuts to its entire portfolio. The plan included using AH-64 Apache attack helicopters paired with Shadow unmanned aircraft systems to fill the armed reconnaissance mission.
But while manned-unmanned teaming is helping to fill the gap, it’s not a perfect option. Apaches are far more expensive to fly than Kiowas, for instance, and manned-unmanned teaming operations are still being refined.
"How we fill the gap currently with the loss of the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior was — by design — a bit of manned-unmanned teaming concept," Maj. Gen. William Gayler, the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence commander, told reporters at AAAA on Thursday.
"As we continue to develop tactics, techniques and procedures for how to best use that combination," he said, "it is still readily apparent that the most critical gap right now for the Army is a light armed reconnaissance helicopter that has the ability to fight for information about terrain and the enemy, that enables the ground force commanders, that gives decision space and maneuver room and reaction time."
Therefore, the Army’s No. 1 FVL need is an armed reconnaissance helicopter, he said.
But that is not what the service is getting, at least not right away.
The Marine Corps wants to replace its H-1 Hueys and are looking at a medium-lift helicopter fulfilling both the utility and attack roles. Special Operations wants to replace its medium-lift MH-60 Black Hawks.
"Right now, as far as the greatest joint need, that is in the capability set 3 platform, and that is why it was chosen to be developed first," Col. Erskine Bentley, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command capability manager for FVL, said at AAAA.
"For the Army, that would be a replacement of the Black Hawk and possible Apache aircraft," he noted. However, the service is currently reconsidering where an attack helicopter would fit in the mix and will not include the attack mission in an analysis of alternatives about to kick off for capability set 3 ahead of the start of the FVL program of record in 2019.
Bentley added that a lot of decisions about which mission sets coordinate with which variants will be determined over the next couple of years as the Army takes a deep dive into what FVL will look like.
"There is ongoing analysis for the Army to determine where is the future attack aircraft" going to reside, for example, he said. "Is that a capability set 1 aircraft? Could it be a capability set 2 or 3 aircraft?"
And a capability set 1 and 2 are likely to be more of a tactical aircraft, whereas capability set 3 and higher will be more of an operational or strategic one.
Gayler said that while the path from a Defense Department perspective is to move forward first with a medium-lift variant, "the Army is still pursuing both."
But "the strategy for both certainly has to become affordable," he said, "but we are certainly looking for every option and every opportunity that we can to field as quickly as possible the capability set 1, the light-attack reconnaissance."
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.