Flying a helicopter in combat a couple of hundred feet above a firefight, fully armed with rockets and a .50-cal machine gun, cleared hot and inbound to a target, provides an adrenaline rush few experience. But those of us who have belong to an exclusive team, one that will soon be a thing of the past. In February 2014, the U.S. Defense Department announced plans to disband the entire OH-58D Kiowa Warrior fleet.
The Kiowa Warrior isn’t sexy. It isn’t like the glamorized Apache gunship or Hollywood’s fan-favorite Blackhawk. It is a small, two-seat light attack/reconnaissance helicopter and is rarely recognized outside of Army aviation and infantry communities. But don’t let its size or lack of mainstream notoriety fool you; the Kiowa packs a big punch.
What separates the Kiowa from the rest of the Army’s helicopter inventory is its mission, which is unlike any other in aviation. One day, the crew conducts reconnaissance for improvised explosive devices during convoy security operations. The next day, they might respond to a request for a close combat attack and engage the enemy with their .50-cal machine gun and 2.75-in. high-explosive rockets. Another day, they might search for enemy activity in a known hot-spot or observe and adjust artillery fire. Then they might have to call in a medevac operation or coordinate with fighter jets to drop bombs. A day in the life of a Kiowa pilot is never the same twice.
Behind the great variety of missions are the Kiowa pilots, whose professionalism and relentless drive pushes them every day to protect those on the battlefield who are constantly in the thick of the fight. The Kiowa Warrior truly breeds a different kind of pilot. After a mission in Afghanistan in 2008, an infantryman told me ground guys love the Kiowa because it is the only aircraft that “thinks” like an extension of the troops on the ground. That airborne extension of the team is what made us so successful in the war on terror in multiple theaters of operation.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Army would not only be ending its 30-year quest to replace the Kiowa, it would be abandoning the scout/reconnaissance mission entirely. The Pentagon proclaims it is continuing the manned recon mission by replacing it with UAV/Apache teams. That’s like trying to fill a round hole with a square peg. A UAV can reconnoiter and an Apache can shoot, but even combined, they will never replace the priceless instincts a Kiowa pilot develops from the experience of flying over an infantry platoon—learning the enemy’s tactics, techniques and procedures—and reacting accordingly. The logic and intuition Kiowa pilots bring to the battlefield are invaluable assets that cannot be substituted with technology. The human aspect of the scout mission simply cannot be replaced.
In terms of saving money, the math just doesn’t add up. A 2011 Army analysis of alternatives to the Armed Aerial Scout found that fielding the AH-64D Apache Block III as a replacement in Kiowa squadrons would be at a minimum 50% more expensive than the currently programmed squadrons. Additionally, a Logistics Management Institute study found that in recent Iraq and Afghanistan operations, had the Army chosen an Apache in place of a Kiowa, it would come with a $4 billion price tag in maintenance, fuel and operating costs.
There is no question that the Kiowa airframe needs to be replaced with a modern force, but the procurement process is not simple. Because of new budget constraints, the Army saw a window of opportunity to get rid of the headache of replacing the Kiowa. After three decades, tens of billions of dollars and multiple failed prototypes—including the Comanche, Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter and Armed Aerial Scout—the Army simply gave up.
Scrapping the scout mission will be a catastrophic mistake. There is no coherent cost-effective strategy to enact the Army’s replacement plan. In standard bureaucracy form, the plan looked good on paper and briefed well, but in the real world, operationally, it is a debacle. Kiowa pilots and maintainers have been uprooted from their Army career paths and are now scrambling for an aircraft transition. Long-term, it is not cost-efficient, nor will the modern battlefield benefit from the Kiowa’s absence.
The removal of the Kiowa Warrior from the Army aviation inventory marks the end of an era of an astounding combat-proven aircraft that was fundamental to mission success in Iraq and Afghanistan. But its legacy will live on through all of us who had the privilege to fly or maintain one.
Originally published in the November 17 issue of Aviation Week
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