The U.S. Army is nearing completion on a machine gun replacement program that is providing a significant expansion of battlefield capabilities for the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior fleet.
Described as “the highest OPTEMPO aircraft in both Iraq and Afghanistan,” the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior fleet recently passed the milestone of 550,000 combat flight hours in those two theaters. The Kiowa Warrior is a two-seat, single-engine, observation, scout/attack helicopter with four main rotor blades. It utilizes a thermal-imaging system and a laser rangefinder/designator in a mast-mounted sight situated above the main rotor system. The aircraft is equipped with a variety of weapon systems, including the Hellfire missile, 2.75-inch rockets, and a .50-caliber machine gun. The aircraft operates autonomously at standoff ranges, providing armed reconnaissance, command and control, and target acquisition/designation for Apache helicopters and other airborne weapons platforms in day, night, and adverse-weather conditions.
The Kiowa Warrior was born more than two decades ago when urgent user needs led to the weaponization of the OH-58D observation helicopter. Since then, the Kiowa Warrior has been slated for replacement numerous times, the most recent being through projected fielding of the ARH-70A Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. However, cancellation of that ARH program in October 2008 prompted a re-look at new ways to expand system viability and sustain the Kiowa Warrior in Army fleets until 2025.
One of the first new improvements to reach warfighters involved the replacement of the existing XM296 .50-caliber machine gun with the more capable M3P, which has an 1100 round per minute rate of fire, the ability to penetrate lightly armored vehicles, and an effective range of 1500 meters.
Fortunately for program planners, the Army already had M3Ps in its inventory, as the gun used on the HMMWV-based “Avenger” air defense system. Avenger had reduced force structure requirements, which created a perfect “window of opportunity” for the Kiowa Warrior fleet.
A recent industry exhibit provided the weapon manufacturer, FN Herstal, with an opportunity to spotlight the recent history and capabilities of the M3P.
“Basically, we contracted about 10 years ago with the U.S. Army and Boeing to provide the weapon for the Avenger program,” explained David Toussaint, program management coordinator for weapon systems at FN Herstal. “At that time the Avenger had Stinger missiles and they wanted a coaxial .50 caliber machine gun. And the goal was to provide close protection of the Stinger launcher and be able to defend the station. So we provided the M3P with all of the bore-sighting and attachment systems.”
Noting that the Army wanted to retain the M3Ps after Avengers left the inventory, he said, “The M3P has been installed in our pods for years with hundreds of integrations. And they realized that they needed a solution to give a better fire suppression capability to the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. Based on that, they integrated the M3P and its bore sighting system onto it.”
The M3P was initially fielded to the 7/17th Cavalry Squadron in January 2009 prior to their deployment to Operation Enduring Freedom. Since that time the Kiowa Warrior Product Office has fielded the system to nine of its ten Kiowa Warrior squadrons.
One recent senior leadership assessment credited the new machineguns with firing “over 1 million rounds in combat,” approximately three times the number of rounds fired on the old XM296. Program representatives note that the primary reasons for the increased use include a higher rate of fire, greater accuracy, and greater system reliability.