WASHINGTON: The Kiowa Warrior OH-58D, the Army’s primary armed reconnaissance scout aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan, is about to get a makeover that will extend its life well into the future.

Col. Robert Grigsby, project manager for the Kiowa Warrior Product Management Office, Redstone Arsenal, Ala., told aviation writers during the 2010 Association of the U.S. Army’s Annual Meeting and Exhibition Tuesday that a new equipment package planned for the OH-58D includes such items as an upgraded sensor, digital inter-cockpit communications, and software for enhanced situational awareness that will keep the aircraft fighting for years to come.

“Once the Army determines what the path to the future is for the armed aerial scout, that will determine how long the Kiowa Warrior will be in the inventory,” he said. “What we’ve done is provide the capability to keep this aircraft viable while the Army makes that decision.”

Several upgrades are slated for the OH-58D, which will be re-designated as the F model, but perhaps the greatest with will be the level-2 Manned-Unmanned teaming. Grigsby said this technology will enable Kiowa aviators to receive and transmit full motion video between other aircraft to include unmanned aerial vehicles. Working with the Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate at Fort Eustis, Va., the system was successfully tested in July 2009 and recently integrated into the aircraft.

“This is the first opportunity for the scout aircraft to have the same capability that was put into the Apache fleet and (it will) give them the opportunity to see data in their cockpit that’s coming in from UAVs of a potential target area. This gives them situational awareness prior to coming on the scene and (and enables them to) be able to rapidly engage the target.”

Kiowa pilots will now be able to transmit their own sensor data to troops on the ground as well.

Among several other improvements to the aircraft will be an advanced Nose Mounted Electro Optical Sensor, improved cockpit control hardware, full-color multi-function displays, and digital HELLFIRE missile future upgrades.

Grigsby said all these changes will make the Kiowa Warrior more effective on the battlefield. “What it will do in my opinion is provide an aircraft that is more suited to the operational environment in which our Soldiers are having to fly in, and allow them to provide better support to the warfighter on the ground.”

For an aircraft the Army has relied on for 39 years and seen its share of combat, the upgrades could not come at a better time. Grigsby noted that since 2001, the Kiowa accounts for nearly 50 percent of reconnaissance and attack missions flown in Iraq and Afghanistan, the highest of all Army aviation assets. He added that while the aircraft is designed to fly about 14 flight hours per month, the operational tempo from supporting two wars has resulted in the OH-58D pulling lots of overtime.

“We are flying an average 85-90 hours per month on these aircraft because the warfighter wants them flying. They depend on the Kiowa Warrior being there when they need them. ”

Meanwhile, Grigsby said changes to the OH-58 platform will come over time. “It’s an incremental approach to how we upgrade the aircraft, to get it where it needs to be and provide the warfighter with this enhanced capability,” he added.

He said upgrades such as the reinforced floor armor is being install now, while the man-ummanned teaming system is scheduled to be installed in 2011. The Army plans for the OH-58F model to begin fielding in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2015.

In the meantime, Grigsby said the Army intends to bolster its inventory of the OH58D by continuing to convert older OH-58A models. There are currently 331 Kiowa aircraft on hand after losing 44 of them since 2003 to enemy fire and accidents.

“We have an authorization to go out and buy wartime replacement aircraft, so what we are doing is taking Alpha model OH58s and converting them into D models. The plan is to eventually convert to new metal production aircraft as we move forward and the supply of OH-58A’s dries up.”