The armed reconnaissance helicopter ARH is the replacement for the US Army's Kiowa Warrior platform, which is getting long in the tooth. Taking a civilian helicopter – the Bell 407 – and building it for a military role for fewer tax dollars than the cancelled Comanche programme, the ARH programme has long been wrought with challenges.
But now that the project is well underway, it is becoming evident that the ARH should be just the ticket for in-theatre versatility for the US Army and hopefully, foreign buyers.
By 2004, due to a combination of combat losses and accidents, the US Army had lost about 10% of its 368 OH-58D Kiowas. As the potential upgrade programme – the Comanche – had been cancelled there was a need to find a replacement fast.
Bell Helicopter Textron's winning tender for a request for proposals was the ARH. Armed with a 0.50-calibre Gatling gun, a seven-38 tube 2.75in folding fin aircraft rocket (FFAR) launchers and the capacity to carry cargo and or up to six passengers.
The concept sounds simple enough – take the successful Bell 407 helicopter, based on the Bell 206, the platform for the OH-58D Kiowa as a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) platform and adapt and adopt it to military requirements. However, military equipment and development programmes rarely run on time, on budget or sometimes don't even make it to a finished product. Bell's armed reconnaissance helicopter (ARH) programme for the US Army is no exception to this.
The initial goal was to have 30 operational and eight training ARHs from an initial order of 368 delivered by September 2008. The programme suffered the almost inevitable delays, cost overruns and worse, a failure. One of four test ARHs made a forced landing in February 2007 due to a loss of power. In March 2007, the US Government issued a stop-work notice on the programme; Bell Helicopter Textron had 30 days to come up with a plan.
Textron had also issued a statement to its shareholders that the ARH would lose the company between $2m and $4m on each unit. "The programme realised cost overruns and schedule delays primarily surrounding preparation for the limited user test, which was successfully completed in November 2007.
"Both system development demonstration (SDD) aircraft build timelines and target acquisition sensor system (TASS) maturity contributed to the delays," said Dan O'Boyle, spokesperson for the US Army Aviation and Missile Command; estimates for the SDD part of the ARH programme were reported as being up nearly 43% to around $300m.
The powers at Bell Textron must have got it right because the US Government gave the green light for ARH to go ahead in May 2007. "The restructured programme addresses schedule and cost risk and the necessary resources to reduce these risks have been put in place. Additionally, the programme is incorporating a second limited user test in order to provide additional development /operational test information to support future production decisions," said O'Boyle.
OVERCOMING THE OBSTACLES
Commercial companies working with the military can always prove difficult as both sides have fundamentally different objectives. The private contractor is ultimately looking for the best profit available for its shareholders. On the other side, the military is looking to nail the operational requirements at par or below budget and on time. Bob Ellithorpe, ARH programme manager for Bell Helicopters says the ARH programme certainly met its own combination of challenges.
"I would say that the defining characteristic of the ARH programme has been the adaptation of a COTS system, the Bell 407, into a military system," said Ellithorpe. "We're taking systems from other military systems that are in use today and we're integrating them into the Bell 407 where they didn't exist before. Part of this is the normal challenges that you get with adding a new system to a platform and that challenge is the system integration."
It is now hoped that the problems for ARH are behind Bell. The initial delivery dates have slipped but shouldn't slip further according to Ellithorpe.
"We have three aircraft in flight test now. We're building two more flight test aircraft that will be complete early next year. The first production aircraft is scheduled for delivery in the second half of 2009," said Ellithorpe.
The first aircraft delivery to support (initial operational test and evaluation) IOTE is now planned for November 2009.
A LESSON WELL LEARNED?
Bell Helicopter has learned lessons from the ARH experience. According to Ellithorpe, three of these stand out among all others:
- Having a strong industry team. "It's absolutely critical to your success. Being able to maximise their expertise and capability is critical. That's a lesson learned on every programme."
- A programme like this will be successful when it's executed by an integrated product team. "The organisational concept we use and that means that we bring together engineering disciplines, logistic disciplines, manufacturing, finance and contract, quality, systems engineering disciplines and bring them all together under one team. We co-locate them in one facility and that maximises the chance to be successful the first go round."
- Nail the requirement. "We've got an aircraft that meets the requirement. The lesson learned is that you want to define the qualification approach up front in the beginning initial stages of the programme to ensure that you and your customer are absolutely in line as to how you're going to qualify your system."
In January 2008 the US Government said it was working on an export policy for the ARH for international sales and expects a total of 1,000 orders, including the US Army's 512.
"There is no doubt in my mind that this is going to be a solid programme for Bell Helicopters. Both for the US Army, the US Army National Guard, and for potential international customers," said Ellithorpe.
Right now, the programme is ticking along, "Every month we accomplish more objectives. One measure of that is the number of flight hours. We're rapidly approaching 1,200, Ellithorpe said. Hindsight is a luxury for the historians. However, Ellithorpe said that Bell would do it different next time around and reinforced lesson number three, "Up front in the initial months of the programme, define that qualification approach clearly and put it on paper," he said.