Just about anybody who’s spent any time thinking about fighting understands the almost inate desire to seek the high ground. High ground gives you better lines of sight on the battlefield, and if you are defending, your enemy must attack uphill. If you are attacking, you get the momentum of going downhill. So it is no surprise that as aviation came into being, it was seen as the ultimate in high ground. And while eventually, the Air Force came to be the service with the claim to the majority of that slice of the battlefield, the Army became an enthusiastic supporter of using aviation for observation.
In WWII, the Army used Piper Cubs for spotting artillery fire. And pretty quickly, the “grasshoppers” learned that they could also do a fair amount of reconnaisance while over enemy lines. The pilots and observers became very good at locating troops hiding in woods. In the immediate post-war years, the early piston powered helicopters soon began to replace most of the light aircraft the Army used for observation. These worked pretty well, but being piston powered, had some real shortcomings. First, they lacked power. Later models used more powerful engines, but the increase in horsepower was offset by the increase in engine weight and increased fuel consumption. Secondly, they used high octane gas. That made them pretty flammable. And the piston engines needed a lot of maintanence. With the introduction of lightweight, powerful gas turbines, the Army launched a competition to buy a new light observation helicopter.
The competition opened in 1960. Twelve firms entered the competition. Bell Helicopter’s entry was the YOH-4, known inside the company as the Model 206. It lost. The stated reason was that it was underpowered. The real reason was probably this:
It was just too ugly.
Hughes Helicopters eventually won the competition with the OH-6 Cayuse.
Now, the Army was very happy with the OH-6. It was fast, durable, didn’t need much maintanence, could carry a pilot, an observer and still have power to fit some light armament onboard. With the war in Vietnam heating up, the demand for observation helicopters skyrocketed. “Loaches”, as they quickly came to be called, were scouring the countryside, finding trails, bunkers, troops and calling in artillery, directing troops on the ground, and working hand in hand with attack helicopters to pin down and destroy the elusive Viet Cong and NVA.
The problem was, Hughes aircraft couldn’t crank out enough production helicopters in time for the Army. So the Army reopened the competition. Bell hadn’t even come in second place in the original competition. That went to the Hiller OH-5. But for the second tranche buy of Light Observation Helicopters, Bell reworked their original aircraft into what became known at the Model 206B. The Army liked it, and bought it as the OH-58A Kiowa.
Again, the Army was very happy. The new helicopter was light, easy to use, and very effective. That it was cheaper than the OH-6 didn’t hurt much either. And the civilian version, the 206B was a commercial success as well. For years, just about every news helicopter in America was a 206B. In fact, it is still in production. The OH-58A fought alongside the OH-6 throughout the second half of the Vietnam war. Not until after the war did the Army decide to settle on one helicopter for the role, choosing the Kiowa, and slowly relegating the OH-6 to the Reserves.
After the Vietnam War, the Army turned its attention again to the massive Soviet Armies facing NATO in Western Europe. We’ve talked before about the role attack aviation would have under AirLand Battle Doctrine in resisting the Soviet’s echelon attack. But one of the problems was always going to be finding the second and third echelons for aviation (both Army and Air Force) to attack. The Defense Department pumped billions of dollars into various programs to facilitate this. One thing the Army really needed to be able to do was find them at night. The boom in electronics in the 1970s based on transistorization led to among other things, Forward Looking InfraRed technology. It soon became feasible to mount sensors on helicopters that could penetrate the dark and fog. We tend to take it for granted now, but at the time, this was utterly revolutionary. Never before had helicopters been able to fight so effectively at night. And to see for any distance using anything other than flares was almost magic. And while mounting laser beams on a shark’s head might be impractical, mounting a laser next to a thermal FLIR sight is pretty doable.
By combining the thermal sensor and laser with a new transmission, a more powerful engine and a 4-blade main rotor, the Army updated the Kiowa into the OH-58D. And they stuck the sensors in a stabilized ball turret on top of the rotor. That let them hide behind a ridge or woodline and still peek over the top.
And again, the Army was very happy. The D-model Kiowa could spot enemy formations, call artillery fire upon them, it could use its laser to illuminate targets for Hellfire missiles fired from Apache helicopters and even laser guided artillery rounds. A typical scenario might have a US heavy division fighting the first echelon of Soviet Motor Rifle divisions, while Kiowas ranged 20-30 kilometers behind enemy lines looking for the assembly areas of the second echelon tank divisions. It was up to the tank and infantry battalions of the US division to hold the line against the first echelon. But as soon as the Kiowas spotted the second echelon, the division’s MLRS battery and possibly the Corps’ MLRS battalion would begin attacking the second echelon to attrit them and delay them until the US division was set to take them on.
But it wasn’t until the Navy had some problems with the Iranians that the Army started mounting weapons on them. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians had a nasty habit of putting sea mines in the Persian Gulf. Not having a huge navy, they mostly laid the mines from a variety of small civilian craft. And they did it at night. A quick run out from port, toss a couple over the side, and run back in. This was causing a great deal of havoc, since a huge chunk of the world’s energy supplies run through the Gulf. The Navy was already escorting tankers through the gulf. And they had long operated helicopters from destroyers and frigates. But their helicopters weren’t equipped to find small craft at night and sink them. They were mostly designed to find submarines hiding under the surface. The answer was to quietly base some Kiowa’s aboard a handful of Navy ships. And since the Kiowa already had a laser target designator, hanging a couple Hellfire missiles on them wasn’t a great challenge. It didn’t take long for the Iranians to notice their mining sorties suddenly got dangerous. And it sure didn’t take the Army long to notice how handy it was to have the Kiowa armed and ready to take on targets they might find. Pretty soon the decision was made to arm all the OH-58Ds. The result is the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. The armament is flexible. You can mount Hellfire missiles, 70mm rocket pods or .50cal machine gun pods on the pylons.
Kiowa Warriors are currently deployed in Iraq where they spend a lot of time doing what Kiowas have always done- keeping an eye out for the bad guys.
Sadly, this has not been without a price.