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Whither (wither) the Army’s Armed Aerial Scout Program?

With the key rotorcraft contractors assembled this week in Nashville at the American Association of Army Aviation (AAAA) convention, there is no doubt that the biggest question on the collective mind of industry relates to the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) program. 

The following summarizes what Major General Tim Crosby, Army Program Executive Office (PEO) Aviation has related to the press, and directly to DSJ in response to query, about the current state of play on the program:

(1)       The AAS Analysis of Alternatives (AoA), long ago completed, still remains “about to be signed off on” by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) based on a completed “Sufficiency” review. 

(2)    A 23 April 2012 Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) meeting is scheduled to approve the AAS program start.  This DAB approval by OSD will give the Army and PEO Aviation the authority to schedule and conduct the AAS Voluntary Flight Demonstrations (VFDs) and to release another AAS Request for Information (RFI). 

(3)       Approximately ten months after the RFI is released the Army anticipates making a decision on what to bring forward as a material solution option for AAS.

(4)       An AAS Industry Day will be scheduled upon DAB approval.  PEO Aviation anticipates that five vendors will participate in the VFDs, which will be performed at vendor locations as early as this June. 

(5)       PEO Aviation will bring to the VFDs an “exportable instrumentation package” that will accumulate “apples-to-apples” performance data based on iterations that each vendor aircraft will fly.  The VFDs are not associated with the AAS source selection in any way.  Reiterates Gen Crosby: “[The VFDs] are not a fly-off, they are not a fly-off, this is not a competition.”

(6)       “The [AAS] AoA identified recommended capabilities that mitigated the highest percentage of capability gaps (approximately 80% when combined with unmanned systems).  An OH-58F SLEP, as currently envisioned, provides approximately 55% capability gap mitigation when combined with unmanned systems but does not provide any performance enhancements over the current KW.”

(7)       The AoA determined that a manned solution is needed, there’s nothing out there that can meet the requirement, and that a full-scale AAS development program will be necessary to meet the need.  Since such a development has been deemed unaffordable in the current environment, the Army is open to an “80% solution” that gets close to the requirement while meeting the Army’s imperative for an “appetite suppressant” on AAS (so that it can focus resources on the Medium Lift component of its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) portfolio, which has been deemed of higher priority). 

(8)       The VFDs are “intended to provide insight into the state of technology and what that technology can provide.  The Army is seeking performance above the current capability that represents a moderate risk program that is achievable and affordable.”  In short, the VFD will allow the Army to answer the question: “Is there really an 80 percent solution out there, and is it affordable?” 

(9)       The Army has budgeted for an OH-58F SLEP as the “baseline” AAS program.  The VFD and the response to the RFI will allow the Army to determine whether industry can offer a sufficiently compelling composite of performance and cost to make the Army modify (and likely increase funding relative to) its baseline program. 

Reading the Tea Leaves

While system performance will be assessed in the VFD, little has been said about exactly how PEO Aviation will validate the acquisition, operational, and sustainment costs of the would-be/candidate AAS platforms demonstrated.  (General Crosby offers that “any increased insight and information on the technical aspects of potential technologies will allow greater fidelity in cost estimates.”)

Given the current fiscal situation, pronounced aversion to risk, and expressed Army aviation priorities, it seems apparent to observers that the only REAL chance to avoid the status quo outcome (a OH-58F SLEP) is if the VFD and RFI validate a low-risk solution that significantly exceeds the capabilities of the OH-58F SLEP with costs in line with the funding presently allocated. 

Indeed, it appears to many observers as though PEO Aviation is positioning itself to pursue the budgeted-for KW SLEP and not go with a “new” AAS unless a remarkable development occurs in the VFDs.  As our colleagues at DoD Buzz crystallize the evolving sense:

“As more time passes, the more it looks like the Army is backing away from buying a new Armed Aerial Scout even though they plan to test industry’s entries in June. The dialogue is instead leading toward the likelihood that the Army will pursue a service life extension program.  Aviation officials keep emphasizing how the training and sustainment costs must be considered when buying the Armed Aerial Scout. These are valid costs and will make up the chunk of the price tag over the life of the program. However, Pentagon officials avoid mentioning those costs when they are truly eager to buy something. The phrase “per vehicle cost” is mentioned instead.”

Notwithstanding a host of compelling AAS offerings from industry – including dramatic new unveilings from EADS and MD Helicopters at the AAAA show -- a reading of the tea leaves does not suggest that a new buy is in the offing.