Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno recently told a separate hearing that the Army needed to assess whether the technology was far enough along to justify a new program, or whether it should keep the current helicopters flying longer.
Those comments mark a setback for Boeing Co, Europe’s EADS and other companies that planned bids based on modified commercial helicopters, but could bode well for Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp, whose high-speed S-97 Raider is in prototype development.
Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron Inc and maker of the current OH-58; AgustaWestland, a unit of Italy’s Finmeccanica SpA, which had teamed with Northrop Grumman Corp; MD Helicopters; and AVX Aircraft, had also expressed interest.
EADS, Boeing and the AgustaWestland-Northrop team recently withdrew their bids for a separate Air Force search-and-rescue helicopter program after concluding it was too narrowly structured, favoring a helicopter built by Sikorsky.
This is the Army’s third attempt to start replacing the OH-58 helicopters, the basic airframe of which dates back to the Vietnam era, although it has been upgraded and modernized several times.
The Army cancelled the Comanche helicopter program in 2004, then scrapped a follow-on deal with Bell Helicopter for an armed reconnaissance aircraft in 2008. It then launched a successor “Armed Aerial Scout” program but decided to carry out flight demonstrations to see what capabilities were already available.
Industry executives are perplexed about the Army’s recent comments about its disappointment in the aircraft viewed last year, especially since officials had previously talked about some of those helicopters meeting or exceeding requirements.
In January, Colonel John Lynch, capability manager with the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, said several of the aircraft seen in the flight demonstrations and factory visits met or exceeded recommended performance requirements.