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US Army Says It Badly Needs A Scout Helicopter After Junking The Ones It Had

Just as predicted, the hole left by the humble OH-58D Kiowa Warrior is gaping, and now the Army wants to fill it as soon as it can.

The US Army has executed its grand rotary-wing aviation restructuring plan that saw the ousting of hundreds of Bell JetRanger derivatives from service—653 airframes in total. These included the Army’s entire fleet of 187 TH-67 Creek primary trainers and the roughly 340 OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed reconnaissance/armed scout helicopters that performed so brilliantly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, just months after the final Kiowa Warriors were officially retired, the US Army is whining about how badly they need…an armed scout helicopter.

Under the same aviation plan, the OH-58D was partially “replaced” by far more complex and expensive AH-64E Apache Guardian helicopters and drones, with the hopes that the Apache-drone teaming would work like a charm. Well the concept is still floundering, and clearly it cannot replace the efficiency or capability that the Kiowa Warrior provided. Not just that, but the plan also has seen entry-level Army helicopter pilots being taught to fly on $5 million twin turbine medium utility helicopters—the equivalent of running a drivers ed classes in a brand new Lexus SUV.

The Army’s bumbling of the often step-child like but highly effective armed scout helicopter program and community is nothing new. The service has failed to field a OH-58D replacement for nearly a decade and a half. Before its cancellation in 2004, the cutting-edge and stealthy RAH-66 Comanche was supposedly going to fill the role and more. Then the Army went for a far lower-end replacement with the ARH-70 Arapaho program that also failed after costs spiraled out of control and developmental issues persisted.

In between these programs the Army kicked the tires on many other armed reconnaissance helicopter concepts, but none made it very far. Even upgrading the OH-58D significantly was a touch-and-go affair before the type was suddenly axed entirely.

By the turn of the decade it looked as if the Kiowa Warrior would get its first major facelift in over two decades in the form of the OH-58F program. The upgraded Kiowa Warrior first flew in 2013 and it was planned to reach initial operating capability in 2016, with the entire fleet of OH-58Ds being slated for the upgrade. The type would fly in “Foxtrot” form till at least 2036, but likely even beyond. Then the end came as the Army enacted its rotary-wing aviation restructuring plan, and the Kiowa’s proud service came to a fairly abrupt and unglamorous end.

During this year’s Army Aviation Association of America convention, Army aviation officials stressed that the biggest gap in capability they have is the one left by the Kiowa Warrior’s quick retirement, and that they are seeking to fill that gap as a top priority. As it previously sat, the Army wouldn’t be able to replace the Kiowa Warrior anytime soon, as the service remained focused on developing and procuring a scalable family of new helicopter systems dubbed Future Vertical Lift.

According to Aviation Week, under the program, which seeks to employ a new form of high-speed vertical lift capability across the services, there are five levels of aircraft that could be procured. Capability Set One (CS1) being a light helicopter, all the way up to Capability Set Five (CS5) being a heavy lift cargo aircraft. In the center is CS3, which will theoretically become the replacement for the UH-60 Black Hawk and the AH-64 Apache, and also possibly the USMC’s UH-1 and AH-1 fleets, among other helicopters. Currently this part of the FVL is the highest priority overall for the program, and CS3 isn’t scheduled to be procured till around 2030—if the funds for such a large force featuring capabilities that are currently deemed as “exotic” materializes.