Col. Mark Hayes and Lt. Col. Neil Thurgood are brimming with confidence while facing a Herculean task. Their mission is to develop and deploy a new, armed reconnaissance helicopter within four years.
They admit that there are many who don't believe they can pull it off.
"Even the people who were skeptical have moved mountains to keep this program on track," said Hayes, who serves as system manager of the Army's reconnaissance/attack training and doctrine command at Fort Rucker, Ala.
"There are a lot of skeptics out there," said Thurgood, product manager of the armed reconnaissance helicopter (ARH) at the Army's Redstone Arsenal, Ala.
"We will not get another chance at this. This program must be successful."
Thurgood vowed that the new aircraft's first flight will take place March 22. The goal is to have the first unit equipped with 30 aircraft and eight trainers by September 2008. He expressed little doubt that they will hit these marks. "Every second counts," he said at an aviation conference sponsored by the Association of the United States Army.
"It's important that we measure what we're doing every minute of every day," Thurgood said. "If you just kind of wave your hand and say we're going to get there eventually, you probably will get there eventually, but we just don't know when eventually is."
The ARH will replace the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, which has served since 1991. The need is acute. The Army requires 368 Kiowas, but fewer than 350 remain. When one goes down, there are none left in the inventory to replace them. In one recent incident, a Kiowa crashed near Mosul, Iraq, killing both pilots. The Kiowa has given the Army one of the greatest returns on investment of any aviation program, Hayes said.
"We've been asking this airplane to do a lot of hard things for a long time well beyond its service life and well beyond the capability we designed," he added.
The need for an armed reconnaissance helicopter in urban battlefields remains strong, although there are always challenges to operating in such environments, Hayes said. The four-year development track the Army has laid out for the ARH will take place within the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts, barring no unforeseen troop withdrawals before 2008.
In a 2005 annual report, David Duma, the Defense Department's operational test and evaluation director, noted that the ARH schedule is "aggressive." He cautioned against temptations to add new mission requirements during the development phase.