U.S. Army Scout Copters Head to South Korea for One Last Mission

Venerable OH-58Ds should retire by 2017

U.S. Army Scout Copters Head to South Korea for One Last Mission U.S. Army Scout Copters Head to South Korea for One Last Mission
With tensions at a recent high, the U.S. Army is sending the last of its OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters to the Korean Peninsula... U.S. Army Scout Copters Head to South Korea for One Last Mission

With tensions at a recent high, the U.S. Army is sending the last of its OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters to the Korean Peninsula for one more mission. After decades of service in war zones including Afghanistan and Iraq, the venerable copters should leave service by 2017.

On March 19, the Army announced that 400 soldiers from the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry and their helicopters would go to South Korea. The Pentagon already has some 30,000 people in the country.

“I know they are ready for any contingency … particularly at this time of heightened tensions,” Army colonel Erik Gilbert, head of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, said in an official press release. The troops “represent both the last and also the very best of the U.S. Army Kiowa Warrior Squadrons.”

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The primary mission for the small copters is to scout ahead of troops on the ground. Using their copters’ powerful cameras and laser pointers, crews can pick out targets for artillery units and jet fighters.

On top of that, the Kiowas can strike enemy troops and light vehicles on their own with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, 70-millimeter rockets and .50-caliber machine guns. To ward off deadly heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, the OH-58Ds come equipped with flares and an infrared jammer that looks like a disco ball.

The Kiowas can fly less than 200 miles on their own fuel, so the Army will have to ship the helicopters to South Korea. In the past, civilian cargo ships have delivered the helicopters for this kind of deployment.

Since October 2013, the Army’s attack and scout helicopter units have been taking turns pulling nine-month stints on the Korean Peninsula to help bolster defenses and urge calm in Seoul and Tokyo. Since taking over after the death of his father in 2011, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has pursued an increasingly belligerent foreign policy.

Above — an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. At top — an OH-58D fires a rocket in South Korea during an exercise in 2014. U.S. Army photos

“Our hydrogen bomb is much bigger than the one developed by the Soviet Union,” state-run DPRK Today reported on March 13, according to a translation by The Washington Post. “If this H-bomb were to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile and fall on Manhattan in New York City, all the people there would be killed immediately and the city would burn down to ashes.”

In January, North Korea — formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK — claimed it had set off its first-ever hydrogen bomb. Earlier in March, the reclusive regime fired off a number of ballistic missiles to protest an annual war game the Pentagon runs with its counterpart in the South.

With more than 17,000 American and South Korean troops taking part, the 2016 iteration of this mock battle focused on ways of eliminating the North’s weapons of mass destruction, according to Yonhap News. Pyongyang accused the allies of practicing how to “decapitate” North Korea’s political leadership.

While an armistice agreement ended major fighting in 1953, Washington and Seoul are technically still at war with the regime in Pyongyang. The Kiowa crews will probably spend most of their time training. But if a shooting war erupts, the scout choppers will likely join other allied aircraft backing up friendly troops and helping hunt down North Korea’s ballistic missiles.

The deployment will bring to a close the tortured history of the Army’s Kiowas. Helicopter-maker Bell first offered the Army a light scout helicopter way back in 1961.

The ground combat branch ultimately chose the Hughes OH-6 chopper, instead. Unfortunately, the California-based aircraft company was not able to meet the demands of the contract.

With the Vietnam War in full swing, the Army went shopping again … and this time turned to Bell. Almost eight years after losing out to Hughes, Bell delivered the first OH-58A Kiowa.

By the end of the 1970s, infighting within the ground combat branch finally gave way to a single plan for more substantial improvements to either the OH-6 or the OH-58s — both were still in service. In 1981, Bell won out again.

The new D-model OH-58 was substantially different compared to older versions. The new copter had a more powerful engine and a new transmission.

Unlike the older OH-58s with their two-blade main rotors, the new Kiowa Warrior had four blades. All of these upgrades made the new aircraft quieter and more maneuverable.

On top of that, the Kiowa Warriors had a large turret on top of the rotors containing a night-vision camera and a laser designator, plus digital flight instruments in the cockpit. With this equipment, crews could lob precision Hellfire missiles, day or night, in addition to firing older rockets and machine guns.

The first OH-58F prototype. U.S. Army photo

Even so, the Army planned to retire the Kiowas by the early 1990s. An entirely new “Light Helicopter Experimental,” or LHX, would take their place.

Army officials expected the LHX to be a revolutionary new design. Various companies offered up wildly different helicopter and tiltrotor concepts as options.

As the requirements changed and evolved, Boeing and Sikorsky partnered up to create the stealthy RAH-66 Comanche. What looked to be the future eventually turned into an infamous failure.

As the Pentagon’s budget shrank after the Cold War ended, the armed services took hard looks at various projects. In 2004, the Army canned the Comanche program after spending nearly $7 billion and building just two prototypes. “An Army official told us that the program’s costs could no longer be justified,” the Government Accountability Office wrote in a report four years later.

So the OH-58s soldiered on. Soon after the end of Comanche, Bell proposed yet another improved version of the Kiowa.

Like the earlier projects, the ARH-70 Arapaho was soon beset by delays and cost overruns. In February 2007, the fourth and final prototype crashed into a golf course flight near Bell’s main facility in Fort Worth after apparent debris in the fuel line cut power to the engine during a test.

A month later, the Army told Bell it had 30 days to get the problems sorted or risk losing the contract. Despite the ultimatum, the project limped along more than a year. In October 2008, after more than a year of attempts to jump-start the project, the ground combat branch formally canceled the deal.

Just over three years ago, the Army unveiled its latest attempt to extend the life of the Kiowas. Further upgraded OH-58Fs would get entirely new cockpits with improved flight computers, as well as new cameras and other equipment.

An AH-64 and an OH-58D in Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo

In 2014, the Army again changed tack, cancelled these new improvements in favor of just replacing the Kiowas wholesale with AH-64 Apache gunships. To make this plan work, the service would have to poach attack choppers from National Guard units, giving them Black Hawk transports instead.

Despite criticism and push back from members of Congress and the National Guard Bureau, the Army moved forward with the plan, part of a larger effort it called the Aviation Restructure Initiative, or ARI. In a report to lawmakers in January, the National Commission on the Future of the Army presented a compromise that would keep four battalions of Apaches in the Guard.

Another battalion’s worth of the gunships would stay in South Korea to help speed up rotations. With the aircraft already in place, units wouldn’t have to ship their own copters across the Pacific for the nine-month rotations.

But no one is suggesting keeping the Kiowa Warriors — or trying again to find a direct replacement. Next year, companies plan to show off concept aircraft — including advanced helicopters and tiltrotors — as part of the Pentagon’s new Future Multi-Role project.

“This is not a wish-list,” Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Daniel Allyn said on Jan. 14. “These are must-haves to deliver an aviation force capable of dominating future battlefields.”

Bell is lobbying hard for its V-280 Valor tiltrotor and claims the aircraft could be ready to go by 2025. The company’s stated goal is to offer the twin-engine aircraft — which can fly like a plane but take off and land like a helicopter — as a replacement for all of the Pentagon’s copters.

In a break with the past, there won’t be any old Kiowas left to fill in if the V-280 — or any other high-tech rotorcraft program — fails to produce a working aircraft.