YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Army’s OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter is getting a multimillion-dollar makeover that includes moving its distinctive top-mounted “beach ball” sensor to the aircraft’s nose — all the better for peering down at enemy forces in urban environments.
Lt. Col. Mathew Hannah, the Army’s Kiowa project manager, said the upgrades, which cost $4 million each, are under way, with the first modified Kiowa scheduled to fly in April.
Hannah did not comment on a recent Reuters report that suggested the Pentagon may spend $6 billion to $8 billion on a replacement for the Kiowa, but he said the upgrades will significantly extend the life of an aircraft that’s been neglected in recent years because it was, until recently, marked for retirement.
Kiowa Warriors, armed with rockets, missiles and machine guns, are the oldest scout helicopters in the Army, with an average age of 41 years, said Hannah, who’s been flying them for 20 years.
Their top-mounted sensors were designed for Cold War missions where the aircraft hid behind trees and searched for enemy tanks by flying just high enough to raise the sensor above the branches, Hannah said.
“The mission for the OH-58 hasn’t changed over time, but the enemy has changed,” he said last week. “We are still an armed reconnaissance platform, and our mission is to conduct surveillance and assist the ground commander with troops in contact.”
Kiowas have accounted for 47 percent of the attack helicopters deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan but they’ve flown 52 percent of missions because ground commanders and troops in contact prefer them to alternatives such as the AH-64 Apache, Hannah said.
“They can get down close to friendly forces,” he said of the Kiowas.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan Carbone, who spent a decade as a Kiowa mechanic before becoming a pilot, said it’s clear the Kiowas are popular with ground troops.
“When you are deployed and standing in line at the chow hall, infantry guys will come up and ask: ‘Do you fly the Kiowas? Thanks for getting us out of trouble last night.’ ”
Typical missions for the Kiowas in recent years have involved hovering over urban environments and trying to spot insurgents hiding on streets and in buildings. In those situations, a top-mounted sensor isn’t ideal because the aircraft’s fuselage blocks much of what its cameras are trying to focus on directly below, Hannah said.
Moving the sensor to the aircraft’s nose, which is where police helicopters typically carry cameras, makes sense, although it requires longer landing gear, he said.
The Army is also upgrading the 30-year-old sensor on the Kiowa to a state-of-the-art package that can transmit high-quality color images, he said.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Herman, who has been flying Kiowas for 20 years, is giving the Army feedback on the upgrades. He was impressed by the new sensor.
“It will allow us to track targets and identify them from a much greater distance,” he said.
That will allow the Kiowa to hover further from the enemy, making it harder to spot and safer for the crew, he said.
Another officer involved in Kiowa upgrades, Maj. Raaen Stewart, said the new gear will give crews the ability to see video transmitted by unmanned aircraft and to transmit images from their own cameras to other manned aircraft or ground troops.
An infrared pointer will allow the crew to highlight targets for other aircraft and ground forces, he added.
The upgraded Kiowas — known as OH-58Fs — will carry three kinds of lasers for painting targets, including eye-safe lasers for training, Hannah said.
The cockpits will also be upgraded with digital controls, more powerful computers, and the ability to communicate with “smart weapons.” Such weapons, which can be controlled after they have been fired, have yet to be fielded by the Army, but they could be used in future, he said.
The Army is also taking action to replace Kiowas lost in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.
Combat losses mean that the Army, which is authorized 368 OH-58Ds, has only 329 flying. Technicians are adding weapons to unarmed versions of the helicopter — OH-58ACs — at a cost of $11 million each, Hannah said.
Bell Helicopter and Corpus Christi Army Depot have delivered one upgraded helicopter per month since June and continue until the fleet is back up to strength, Hannah said.