After a years-long shortfall but with a successful operational evaluation in hand, the U.S. Marine Corps is planning to request approval for full-rate production of the new AH-1Z attack helicopter.
The Navy declared the AH-1Z Viper (also known as the Zulu) operationally effective and suitable following the final operational evaluation period for the program last month. Lt. Gen. George Trautman, deputy Marine commandant for aviation, said operational testers expressed some concern about the supportability of the Zulu, but that has been resolved.
This progress has come after challenges with the H-1 upgrade program, which includes the upgrade to the AH-1Z and UH-1Y configurations. Bell Helicopter, the prime contractor, had design and management problems, and at one point the Navy canvassed industry for alternatives. But the recent nod for the Zulu from the testing community will allow the Marine Corps to get past those issues and begin concentrating on modernizing its helicopter fleet as the demands of war in Afghanistan continue to stretch the service.
The Marines are buying 189 Zulus, 58 of which are new-build helicopters with the remainder being upgrades to the AH-1Ws (Whiskeys) now in the fleet. Bell Helicopter is the prime contractor for both the UH-1Y Yankee and AH-1Z Zulu upgrade efforts. The Navy is paying for 160 UH-1N armed utility helos to be upgraded to the UH-1Y standard. The total Huey/Cobra upgrade cost is $12.1 billion.
The average age of the AH-1W fleet is 20 years, while that of the UH-1N is 36 years, according to the Fiscal 2011 Marine Corps Aviation Plan, signed last month by Trautman.
Navy officials had planned to procure 226 Zulus but decreased the number to account for a reshaping of the Marine Corps light attack helicopter squadrons. The Yankee has undergone two full deployments (including ship operations and activities in Afghanistan), and Col. Scott McGowan, Marine Corps headquarters branch head for aviation plans, programs and budget, said that it has “reclaimed the utility mission” for the USMC. Previously, the squadron mix was to be 18 Zulus and nine Yankees per unit; that was rebalanced this year to 15 Zulus and 12 Yankees. “Cobra is optimized for precision weapons. Yankee will never do that as well,” McGowan said. “But when you add it all up across the full spectrum of combat operations… it looks like a better mix for us.”
Hewson said that Bell is on contract to deliver 70 Yankees and 28 Zulus; 31 UH-1Y and 11 AH-1Zs have been delivered. Two of each type were used for developmental testing and will be retained as test assets.
Hewson said Bell is now “meeting budget dead on” for the upgrades, and the company is operating under firm fixed-price contracts for procurement despite two cost overruns.
Reliability problems that Hewson says were mostly software-related cropped up with Zulu parts earlier in the program. An attempt at a Zulu operational evaluation was botched in part because the Navy used developmental target sight systems, not production versions, due to budget constraints. They were not reliable for the testing phase, Hewson said. The most recent operational evaluation included production versions of the Lockheed Martin AN/AAQ-30 target sight system.
The Marine Corps decided to prioritize fielding of the Yankees to reduce the number of AH-1Ws pulled out of service for upgrades and to work through the parts reliability issues. The service continues to suffer a shortfall in attack helicopter capacity, McGowan said. It is 52 attack helicopters short and only 58 new-builds are expected. This is viewed as the minimum amount needed for the Corps to handle its missions, as there are few extra helicopters included for attrition reserve. McGowan said the Marines are knowingly taking some risk in this area.
Hewson said the new-build Zulus will take priority in the short term to reduce the number of Whiskeys that have to come out of active duty for the upgrade.
Last year, full-rate production began on the Yankee while this year, the first two new-build AH-1Zs were put on contract. And before operational evaluation of the Zulu, the Navy conducted a “full shakedown” last year to ensure the problems were ironed out prior to the formal testing phase.
The Zulu has been cleared to use all Hellfire missile variants, 2.75-in. rockets, the 20-mm. gun and AIM-9 anti-aircraft missile series. It is a threshold platform for the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile, for which a competition is underway; it is expected to enter service in 2016. Testing recently wrapped up for use of the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) on the AH-1W, and it will be integrated onto the Yankee by the end of 2011 in preparation for insertion onto the Zulu in 2012.