November 3, 2010: The U.S. Army fleet of 230 OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters is wearing out. So the army is using money left over from a failed effort to develop a replacement (the ARH-70) to keep the Kiowas going until a suitable replacement is in service. The most notable additions to the OH-58D are a new electronic cockpit, more sensors and the ability to share video data from other aircraft, especially UAVs, and sources on the ground.
Ten years of war have hit the OH-58Ds hard. Those used in Iraq were in the air 72 hours a month. Those in Afghanistan, 80 hours a month. In peacetime, these choppers spend about 24 hours a month in the air. Moreover, combat use puts more stress on the aircraft. Plus there's battle damage. In addition, 20 OH-58s were destroyed in combat. The current solution is to spend several billion dollars to refurbish and upgrade the current fleet, to keep the OH-58 in service for another 10-12 years. It is believed that a replacement will be found and built before then.
The OH-58D has a top speed of 226 kilometers per hour, and a range of 241 kilometers. It has a mast-mounted sight, which carries a powerful FLIR (heat sensing camera) and a laser designator. The OH-58D is lightly armed, and usually only carries four Hellfire (anti-vehicle) or Stinger (anti-aircraft) missiles, or 14 70mm unguided (or guided) rockets. The upgrades will include new, and improved, electronics, but also the possibility of a much needed new engine. Over the decades, the new equipment has been added, without an increase in engine power. For a scout helicopter, the OH-58 was getting more sluggish as it got older. This was not good.
To help ease the workload on the OH-58Ds, the army is reorganizing its light aviation battalions, by removing some OH-58 helicopters, and adding RQ-7 Shadow UAVs. The new battalions have 29 aircraft, eight of them UAVs. All this is the result of years of experience with the RQ-7, and some tests, using UAVs as scouts for helicopter gunships, or in cooperation with scout helicopters, rather than the traditional scout helicopter (like the OH-58) operating exclusively. The tests were successful, and the army is updating its tactics as well.
In the last six years, scout helicopters have been doing a lot less scouting, having been replaced by Shadow 200 and Raven UAVs. The scout helicopter pilots are relieved at having UAVs take over some of the more dangerous missions. In particular, the scout helicopter pilots are glad to lose the job of going in to "draw enemy fire" (and thus reveal where the enemy is). This sort of thing has gotten a lot of scout helicopter pilots killed. But there are still situations where the superior situational awareness (two pilots with four eyes, four ears and two noses) of humans are preferable. There are some even more basic considerations. The RQ-7 can stay in the air for up to eight hours per sortie, about three times longer than the OH-58.
The army is also equipping some of its AH-64 helicopter gunships with digital communications that enables them to see what the RQ-7s are seeing. The OH-58s often scout for the AH-64s, finding targets. Now the RQ-7s can do it better, by letting the AH-64 pilots see what the RQ-7 has detected. Already being tested are systems that allow the AH-64, or OH-58 pilots to take control of UAVs. Meanwhile, it's expected that the army aviation battalions will gain more UAVs, and lose helicopters.