Amazing. After over a decade of incredibly efficient and deadly warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as successfully and economically training future Army helicopter pilots for decades, the OH-58 Kiowa may be put to rest… For good.
Replacing or upgrading the OH-58D has been a never-ending story for the US Army that dates back to before the RAH-66 Comanche program. Today, a large portion of the OH-58 fleet is supposed to be recapitalized through an upgrade and refurbishment program to keep it viable until a successor is purchased, namely the innovative S-97 Raider. Just over a half decade ago, a couple of years after the cancellation of the RAH-66 Comanche, the OH-58D was going to be replaced by its modern cousin, the ARH-70 Arapaho, a militarized Bell 407. Even this less than innovative replacement program for the OH-58D died due to cost overruns and the massive outflow of cash to pay for two wars that were only getting worse, not better.
Fast forward to today, where sequestration is a stark reality, and it looks like the Army is just going to delete the highly relevant, economical and proven Kiowas as a whole. In the OH-58D’s place, the Army would place the AH-64D/E by assuming all Apaches to the active force and transferring large amounts of UH-60 Blackhawks to the National Guard and the Reserves. Once again, the net loss would be the OH-58, not just in its armed scout role, but also in the training, and logistics roles. The total force of close to 400 Kiowas in inventory would be eliminated in full. The Army would fulfill its training role by assuming the inventory of UH-72 Lakota light utility helicopters, an aircraft based on the twin-engine Eurocopter EC-145. The hole made by the Lakota transfer to a training role would presumably be filled by the transferred Blackhawks, at least to a limited extent.
Here we go again folks. The military, in an effort to balance its books, is trying to chop the least complex, yet most affordable weapon system in its air combat inventories. Instead of chopping different platforms inventories, the brass and the Pentagon’s “often wrong, rarely right” bean counters are pulling to divest themselves of an entire weapon system. Instead of trimming their hair they are just buzzing it off, in true Army fashion. I think it’s almost comical that the military always tries to cut its most efficient, easiest to maintain, and effective weapon systems in its bid to “save money.” The A-10 Warthog is the USAF’s analogue in this case, a relatively simple machine that uses commercially available motors and simple flight control systems to get the job done. The Kiowas are even one step more affordable, as they are based on the single engine Bell Jet Ranger, one of the most prolific helicopters even made with a massive logistics train that spans the entire globe.
Instead, they will OH-58D will be “replaced,” or should I say “reshuffled” with complex and heavy aircraft that have two motors instead of one. So instead of opting to “shave the force down” the Army is opting for a one size fits all solution, the AH-64 Apache.
The Apache, especially in its current “echo” form, packs an incredibly powerful and deadly punch. But it does this at a high cost, both for acquisition, operation and sustainment. Additionally, for the majority of missions any helicopter gunship has found itself in over the last decade, you do not need 16 Hellfire missiles to get the job done. Especially for over-watch and escort duties. The OH-58D’s mix of cannons, rockets and Hellfire missiles, paired with high availability and low-cost, has been incredibly effective over the battlefields of the new millennium. Additionally, the Kiowa and its intrepid crews, can do something the AH-64 cannot, once the munitions run out the crew can pick up their M4s and “shoot from the saddle” in a pinch. In other words, the little nimble Kiowas can work very close to those they support on the ground. Also, any helicopter can only be in one place at one time, no matter how capable. By divesting so many helicopters capable of dispensing munitions from Army inventories, it will limit the force’s ability to put large quantities of rotory-wing “shooters” in the field. Hellfire missile racks and associated avionics for some of the Army’s Blackhawk fleet would help this situation, but then again you are decreasing the amount of utility and transport helicopters available at any given time by using a portion of the Blackhawks in this role. Maybe the Army should ask itself- Do you really need 800 Apaches? What about cutting some Apache that are not slated to be upgraded to “Echo” standard, and retire half of the Kiowa Warrior fleet? Why does it have to be all or nothing when it comes to the Kiowa fleet?
With this mega-reshuffle we will also see the US Army train new pilots on a twin-engined cavernous Eurocopter. Hardly the ideal platform for such a rudimentary role. One that will cost more down the line in operational costs than the diminutive TH-67s currently in service. Conversely, one would assume that the utility roles that were once the UH-72’s reason for existence will be picked up by UH-60s transferred from the active force. So once again, you have a much larger, more thirsty, more complex machine accomplishing the role that is traditionally filled by a less expensive and small asset. The whole reason $22M Blackhawks were not originally fielded for this mission is that it only requires a $6M Lakota. So by back-filling some of the holes left by transferring the new UH-72s to the training mission with Blackhawks, you essentially do the opposite of saving money, you spend much more of it over time for missions that have no requirement for greater investment.
In the end, this “meat cleaver” forms of “cutting” defense budgets ends in a more costly yet smaller force, one that is less flexible and wrought with needless excess capabilities and lower air-frame density. As these assets age, the next metaphorical shoe to drop will be the need to once again step back to less expensive airframes with less capability in an attempt to save money and “rationalize” the force. You do not need a Blackhawk for basic stateside logistics and you do not need an AH-64E Apache for basic helicopter scouting roles, and you sure as hell do not need an EC-145 for basic pilot training. So instead of shrinking each communities end strength based on what the Army actually needs, they want to pick one community out for disbandment, and by doing so they are going to make every other mission the Army rotary wing fleet currently performs either largely more expensive, or at best, the same cost. Great way to save money guys! And what does this mean for the S-92 Raider that the Army is so hot to buy, or the Joint Multi-Role Helicopter program (the F-35 of the whirly-bird world) that is supposed to end in a “winner” that will supply an even more complex and expensive airframe than the Blackhawks in service? If we cannot afford to upgrade and fly a few hundred modified Bell Jet Rangers, I highly doubt we are going to be able to afford a sea of tilt-rotors to replace the Blackhawk, yet alone a pusher coaxial rotor equipped speed demon armed reconnaissance helicopter to provide a mission set that we are about to terminate as a whole. This whole type of disconnect between the DoD’s wants and the current state of the force that already paid for is just tiresome and childish at this point.
Commonality, one-size-fits-all, highly complex fleets of aircraft are not the way to balance our budget or give the war fighter the best tools to survive and win above enemy territory. The DoD’s inability to admit this truth (see the F-35 and the LCS for starters) will end up costing Americans more money (and thus sovereignty) down the road, not to mention that it will also cost lives should an unforeseen conflict arise, and they always do…