An Attack Reconnaissance Helicopter for Tomorrow’s Conflict

An Attack Reconnaissance Helicopter for Tomorrow’s Conflict

JD Swinney

In January the Army Aviation Center of Excellence announced its plan to divest the army inventory of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior in favor of an attack and reconnaissance aviation force consisting of the AH-64 Apache and unmanned aircraft systems.  The announcement drew both criticism and praise from various blogs and media sources.  Most of this commentary centered on questions of the ability of the Apache helicopter and UAS to fulfill the aerial scout role, and whether or not the Kiowa Warrior is truly obsolete.  It is arguable however that the decision was driven as much by fiscal austerity as battlefield requirements.

All of these are the wrong questions to ask.  The proper question is not what helicopter should the Army be using today, but rather what should the Army be developing for tomorrow.  Operating in a time of limited budgets is about assuming risk.  The Army must decide whether to assume risk on the battlefield of today with the current force, or to assume risk on the battlefields of tomorrow by retaining a force that could become irrelevant or overmatched because of advances in opposing force technology.  In order to remain relevant and ready for tomorrow’s conflicts Army Aviation should focus on developing the next generation aviation force.

This essay argues that both the Kiowa Warrior and the Apache are obsolete.  In the Kiowa Warrior, the Army has an aircraft that was cobbled together very quickly in the late 1980s and pressed into service to fill the armed aerial scout role until the RAH-66 Comanche was ready for the field (an aircraft that never came.)  With the Apache, the Army has one of the most advanced attack helicopters in the world, but one that was designed specifically to destroy massed formations of armored vehicles.  Is either of these aircraft right for the 21st century battlefield?  I argue that they are not.

A post-information revolution, post-digital revolution Army that is moving to a smaller and more agile force, while at the same time facing fiscal constraints should consist of only one attack reconnaissance helicopter.  The Army’s current doctrine supports this through the combining of the attack and reconnaissance missions.[i]  Furthermore, any manned attack reconnaissance helicopter should be supplemented by unmanned systems.  The future attack reconnaissance helicopter should however represent a leap forward in technology, as opposed to new shoes on an old horse.  The Kiowa is not the right choice for the one aircraft solution; too small, too old, not survivable.  Neither is the Apache; too big, too old, too one-dimensional.  Army aviation performed magnificently in OIF-OEF, but the success of army aviation in the last war should not be a detriment to preparation for the next.  The present is a turning point, a watershed moment in the future preparedness of Army Aviation and the opportunity must be seized.

The answer to the “one aircraft” solution for attack aviation is a new aircraft. The mission for this aircraft will first be reconnaissance, security, and close combat attack; secondly the aircraft must be able to conduct deliberate attacks against “conventional” threats.  Stated another way, the Apache is an attack helicopter that can also perform reconnaissance, but the new aircraft should be a reconnaissance helicopter that can also perform the attack mission.  The aircraft should be as small as possible in order to be effective as a reconnaissance platform, but large enough to be survivable and carry an adequate weapons payload.  Furthermore the aircraft should be relatively easy to maintain.  A force consisting of less aircraft must inherently be more efficient in its ability to generate combat power in the form of flyable aircraft and flight hours.

Decreasing the size of the aircraft provides other advantages.  Power projection is easier with a Kiowa sized aircraft than one the size of an Apache.  If the Army’s strategic future lies in the Asia-Pacific region, then the Army’s attack reconnaissance helicopter must be at home in the maritime domain. This implies operations from small ships, mobile sea bases, and unimproved heliports.  In such an environment a small reconnaissance helicopter has its advantages, so does one that is easy to maintain.  Furthermore, using an Apache for aerial security in low intensity stability missions is like using a chainsaw to whittle; the method is effective but is not the best tool for the job.

The attack reconnaissance helicopter for tomorrow’s battlefield must be digitally connected with the entire joint force.  It must seamlessly integrate with existing and planned joint tactical data links as well as Army networks.  The aircraft must have the ability to stream full motion video from its sensors to its supported ground force, but should retain the ability to land at an unprepared landing zone next to a ground commander’s vehicle and conduct a “face to face” coordination meeting.  The need for interoperability with Army and joint UAS is a given, but the aircraft must also interact with other unmanned systems.  Target handovers from unmanned ground vehicles and the advanced robotics of the future battlefield will be essential.  The aircrew of tomorrow’s aircraft must be able to not just passively receive information from these other unmanned systems of the land domain, but also control them. 

Unmanned aircraft systems will supplement any future army aviation force.  They are a necessary and valuable tool, but are not a panacea.  We do not yet know how UAS will perform in a theater of war where US forces do not have air superiority.  Will UAS be survivable against a hybrid threat possessing both radar-guided surface to air systems as well as an offensive cyber capability?  Not knowing the answer to this question is not a reason to downplay the importance of UAS on the future battlefield, but it should limit our dependency upon them. 

Firstly, UAS are a wonderful surveillance tool, but are poor at reconnaissance.  JP 1-02 defines surveillance as, “the systematic observation of aerospace, surface, or subsurface areas, places, persons, or things, by visual, aural, electronic, photographic, or other means.  The same publication defines reconnaissance as follows, “A mission undertaken to obtain, by visual observation or other detection methods, information about the activities and resources of an enemy or adversary, or to secure data concerning the meteorological, hydrographic, or geographic characteristics of a particular area.”[ii]  Reconnaissance and surveillance missions are integrated and often flow into one another, but there is a difference.  Surveillance implies observation, a passive interaction with the environment.  Reconnaissance on the other hand requires an understanding of the environment as a system.  More than just observing an enemy vehicle, obtaining information about the enemy requires the conceptual linking of the observed vehicle to the terrain and other actors in the system.  Reconnaissance requires a brain where surveillance requires a system.  This is not to say that there aren’t thinking humans monitoring every UAS flight. Furthermore the pilot of a manned aircraft is no more competent than the pilot of a UAS, but the manned aircrew is closer to the reconnaissance objective.  The crew of a manned reconnaissance aircraft can interact with the micro-terrain and subtleties of the environment in a way in which the crew of a UAS is unable.  Effective reconnaissance saves blood and treasure; it is not the mission in which to assume risk.

This idea does not diminish the role of UAS.  Long endurance surveillance provided by UAS works in symbiosis to the relatively short endurance of manned aircraft.  A potential shortfall of a smaller attack reconnaissance helicopter is the lack of weapons payload compared to the current Apache.  This shortfall could be overcome through armed UAS working in concert with manned aircraft.  The armed UAS could launch its weapons under the command and terminal guidance of the manned aircrew.  Armed UAS could be crucial on the future battlefield in securing lines of communication and performing surveillance around friendly positions.  In a theater where US forces enjoy air superiority UAS can operate with impunity, but in a theater with a contested air domain UAS will not be able to operate as freely as they currently do without significant technological advances.

To accomplish the goal of fielding an aircraft for the future battlefield the Army must make the decision now.  The Apache like the Kiowa Warrior will be obsolete on a future battlefield potentially dominated by advanced robotics, offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, and armed space platforms.  Technology upgrades metered into the Apache will help maintain its status as a premier attack reconnaissance helicopter in the near-term, but soon the environment will change.  Technology solutions like the AH-64E upgrades are simply new shoes on an old horse.

In addition to imagination, fielding an advanced attack reconnaissance helicopter will take money.  Money that is difficult if not impossible to find in the current fiscal environment.  The decision becomes one of assuming risk.  To maintain an attack aviation force based on the current inventory assumes risk on the future battlefield, and to develop an advanced attack reconnaissance helicopter will assume risk in a near-term conflict.  The Army should assume risk in the near term.  The future is uncertain, but any near-term conflict would likely include increased defense budgets.  If needed, the increased defense budgets could be applied to existing technology to increase readiness.  To develop new technology however takes time, and time is the only resource that cannot be regained. 

As an Army aviator I applaud the Aviation branch leadership in making difficult decisions to maintain the readiness of the Aviation force in a difficult fiscal environment.  If the decision to divest the Army of the Kiowa Warrior in favor of an AH-64 and UAS mixed fleet is the least expensive decision then it is the right one.  But this decision should only be an interim one.  The Army should stop efforts to field the AH-64E and focus those resources toward a new attack reconnaissance helicopter. To continue modernizing an old aircraft will only be a temporary solution.  Army Aviation should focus on the development of new equipment that will allow the US to continue the technological overmatch it currently holds in attack reconnaissance helicopters.

End Notes

[i] Department of the Army, FM 3-04.126, Attack Reconnaissance Helicopter Operations (Washington, DC:  Government Printing Office, February 2007), vii.

[ii] Department of Defense, JP 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Washington, DC:  Government Printing Office, November 2010), 297, 346.


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If the decision to divest the Army of the Kiowa Warrior in favor of an AH-64 and UAS mixed fleet is the least expensive decision then it is the right one. But this decision should only be an interim one. The Army should stop efforts to field the AH-64E and focus those resources toward a new attack reconnaissance helicopter. To continue modernizing an old aircraft will only be a temporary solution. Army Aviation should focus on the development of new equipment that will allow the US to continue the technological overmatch it currently holds in attack reconnaissance helicopters.

Most AH-64Ds will be converted to AH-64Es with relatively few new-build aircraft. That will keep Apache/Guardian effective beyond 2030 when an attack joint multi-role (JMR) medium variant may be flying according to the following 16 minute unclassified AH-64E video found on Wikipedia. This also keeps factories and the industrial bases running similar to Abrams/Bradley rebuilds that could support greater prepositioning of the latter:

The video says the AH-64E engine/transmission/blade improvements add 500 lbs to the payload which likely would exceed the entire high/hot weapons payload of a smaller attack aircraft. Smaller attack variants also would not share any commonality with the planned JMR-medium future vertical lift aircraft. I don’t know much about JMR so won’t speculate how much is planned to be common between attack and utility versions. Multiple services would use the utility version and clearly it would be far faster and have greater range than current Apaches/Blackhawks which could be handy in the Pacific. The attack JMR-medium version also hopefully would have greater hover performance and small enough rotor size for smaller LZs and smaller ship operations or multiple aircraft on larger ships.

It won’t take long for F-35/F-22/EA-18G team to attain air superiority and take out most radar air defenses. Once that occurs, the Apache/Gray Eagle team will be highly effective against ground threats whether talking information collection (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, security) or attack. Gray Eagle’s long endurance and greater missile payload vs. Predator complements an AH-64E. Future adversaries will face serious challenges from manned-unmanned teaming and the full motion video fed directly to ground troops, JTACs, and AH-64E cockpits.

I’ll add that AH-64E is far superior to Fuch’s homegrown Tiger and that Gray Eagle is battle-tested with enlisted crews in theater rather than strictly using satellites vulnerable to destruction and cyber-attacks. Don’t believe given the Comanche and ARH fiascos that anyone wants to return to strictly small attack helicopters. Armed aerial scout is unaffordable currently as an OH-58D replacement and would not improve on the AH-64E or JMR-Medium IMHO.

I’m sure MAJ Swinney experienced Afghanistan high/hot power limits that greatly curtail payload/endurance and would continue to on any smaller attack helicopter. When two geared-up pilots alone weigh 400-500 lbs, and you add armored seats and other aircraft survivability equipment, avionics, fuel, and weapons; the physics of a small, survivable attack bird are difficult to overcome. Check out the gunfire detection system at the 13:30 point in the video that greater aircraft payload facilitates.

The U.S.Army has not been able to replace the 70's/early 80's generation of platforms (Abrams, Bradley, MLRS, HMMWV, Apache, Blackhawk) for a reason:
Its procurement system for big ticket items is utter crap. Those old platforms were developed at a time of relatively tight army budgets, and almost all later big ticket development programs were cancelled prior to production.
Crusader, Comanche, FCS, XM-8 ...

The U.S.Army first needs a reset of its procurement system, and only afterwards it has good use for advice on future platforms. Whatever big ticket program they launch now would only be cancelled anyway - the quality of the concept doesn't matter.