Saving the Kiowa: A Case for Augmenting the Reconnaissance and Security Brigade with the Aviation it Needs
A unique opportunity has presented itself that bears some consideration.
The Army has, in recent months, made announcements concerning two reconnaissance and security initiatives. The first is the continued development of the Reconnaissance and Security BDE, a formation earmarked to provide Reconnaissance and Security capabilities at echelons above the BDE level. The other is the possible retirement of the Army's venerable OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, with no replacement airframe planned other than the use of the AH-64D as a multi role aircraft. The Army should retain a portion of the OH-58D fleet and task organize it as organic members of the Reconnaissance and Security Brigades.
Talk to any former Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) or division cavalry squadron (DIV CAV) member and conversation will typically move towards the relationship between the ground and air components within these two organizations. While the Army as a whole is a “combined arms” force, the cavalry is uniquely suited to operate this way. The cavalry has long operated as a combined arms organization with habitual relationships being integral into the units effectiveness. In particular the use of aviation to enhance mobility and provide precision fires greatly expands the cavalry’s capabilities on the battlefield.
The current Reconnaissance and Security BDE structure is still under review; whether it will be a permanent METL (Mission Essential Task List) assigned to designated units or a rotating METL designated during a units force generation cycle and based on the needs of the Army[i]. Assuming the Reconnaissance and Security BDE is an established, non-rotating force within the Army, how can we enhance its capabilities in a focused manner to support that METL? Thus enters the debate regarding the Kiowa and its big brother, the Apache.
Reconnaissance through only sensor-dependant elements will not suffice. History, both our own and allied nations’, have shown us this truth. The Apache is an amazing piece of machinery, and lethal in a combined arms fight against a peer/ near peer threat. It is NOT, however, a good reconnaissance platform, despite the Army’s insistence on naming its parent units Attack Reconnaissance Battalions. Its design makes visual reconnaissance difficult for the crew, which then relies on the sighting system as the primary means of target detection and identification. While the Apache’s systems are impressive, and frankly, salivated over by the Kiowa community, it is nothing new when compared to the vast number of unmanned systems and targeting pods being slung under fixed wing aircraft. What is missing from the equation is the ability for the crew to interact with the environment and its inhabitants.
By way of comparison, the Kiowa is uniquely suited to balance the use of systems, with its Mast Mounted Sight (though it is woefully inadequate given the availability of newer technology) and of course the well trained eyes of experienced scout pilots. Kiowa’s are renowned for their ability and willingness to “go low” to gather required information and to interact with the populace. As a personal anecdote, I once prevented a group of Afghan males from stealing a set of concertina wire the local ground unit had emplaced to block a road culvert where IEDs were commonly placed. The ability to fly low and literally lean out of the aircraft and give hand gestures allowed for a more gradual escalation of force. Other Kiowa pilots can recount their ability to pull alongside vehicles and look into the windows, and even land and dismount to conduct hasty coordination with ground forces. These important, though widely ignored, benefits will be lost with the Kiowa.
In a combined arms maneuver scenario against sophisticated threats, the OH-58D provides precision fires with Hellfire missiles and Close Combat Attack (CCA) support with 2.75 inch folding fin rockets and a .50 caliber machine gun. Its sensors, while dated, can detect vehicles at ranges of in excess of 7 kilometers, providing early and accurate warning for supported ground elements. Its small size and low infra red (IR) signature makes the Kiowa a more difficult target for enemy MANPAD (Man Portable Air Defense) systems typically fielded in front line units. Additionally, the relatively small size of a Kiowa (5,200 lbs including the crew and mission equipment) makes it difficult to detect both visually or by auditory means. Kiowa’s have historically been able to close within one kilometer of opposing forces before being detected.
Another consideration is the ability to rapidly deploy the Kiowa and Apache. Given that a Reconnaissance and Security BDE will likely deploy to an immature theater early in the force projection stage of any conflict, it needs to have firepower quickly available on the ground. Two Kiowas can be loaded onto a C-130 and deployed globally. Once on the ground, the Kiowa can be “unfolded” and in operation in roughly 20 minutes. The Apache does not possess this flexibility, requiring several hours before considered mission ready. Reliance solely on fixed wing assets to support such operations ignores the weather limitations that can hinder fixed wing support without affecting rotary wing employment.
If fiscal concerns are the primary concern, it is worth noting that the cost of maintaining a Kiowa is a third of the cost, per hour, for keeping an Apache in the air[ii]. The Kiowa also maintains the highest operational readiness rate in the conventional Army Aviation fleet (in excess of 85%) and the highest operational tempo (greater than 80 hours flown per month)[iii]. With over 800,000 combat hours flown, the Kiowa has been tested and proven a valued asset to the ground force commander.
So how does the Reconnaissance and Security BDE benefit from the OH-58D? Acknowledging that the Reconnaissance and Security BDE needs to be a master at Reconnaissance and Security tasks and recognizing that it will require dedicated air assets, the next logical conclusion is that it will need organic air to facilitate both training and real-world deployment missions. So, instead of cutting the OH-58D fleet completely, trim it down to a much smaller, focused force and nestle it under the Reconnaissance and Security BDE task organization. This will provide the BDE with the force multiplier it needs to accomplish its METL, as well as allows it to build solid habitual training relationships that are, frankly, lacking from the modern “plug and play brigade” Army.
Opponents of this design will likely point to the old ACR (armored cavalry regiment) concept and the assert that it was too expensive to maintain, or that it was a one-trick pony aimed at fighting World War Three. There is no shame, however, in having elements within the military that are focused on a particular set of skills rather than designed to conduct every mission set conceived. If we are serious about the Reconnaissance and Security mission to support future military operations, both in combined arms maneuver and wide area security settings, then give those units the tools they need to be successful. While dated and in need of system-wide upgrade, the Kiowa is a known quantity within the Army and the Reconnaissance and Security community. Maintain a small fleet to directly support the Reconnaissance and Security brigade, and as the budget allows, find a replacement armed reconnaissance platform to take Army Aviation into the next 30 years.
[ii] FY12 DOD Rotary Wing Aviation Reimbursable Rates