Existing and Planned Helicopters in the Army’s Fleet

The Army’s helicopter fleet consists mainly of utility, cargo, and attack/reconnaissance helicopters. Utility and cargo helicopters are used primarily for transport. Their missions can range from inserting soldiers into battle to retrieving damaged equipment for repair in rear areas. (Box 1-1 presents a short summary of common Army helicopter missions.) Although there is not a hard distinction between utility helicopters (which have designations beginning with UH-, such as the UH-60 Blackhawk) and cargo helicopters (which have designations beginning with CH-, such as the CH-47 Chinook), utility helicopters tend to be smaller and more broadly distributed across the Army’s force structure. Cargo helicopters tend to be larger, and their squadrons assigned to higher echelon units within the Army.1 (Figure 1-1 illustrates the relative sizes of existing and conceptual Army rotorcraft, the appendix provides a description of the force structure for helicopter-equipped units, and the inside front cover lists the terms used in this report.)

Figure 1-1. 

Current and Proposed Army Rotorcraft

Source: Congressional Budget Office and the Department of the Army.

Attack and reconnaissance helicopters are designed to attack enemy forces and to gather information about the disposition of forces on the battlefield. They primarily carry sensors and weapons instead of cargo, and because they are faster and more agile, they can operate over unfriendly territory for prolonged periods. (Pilots of utility and cargo helicopters that operate over hostile territory generally try to get in and get out with minimal exposure.) Attack and reconnaissance helicopter designations usually begin with an AH- or OH- prefix.

Until 2019, Army’s modernization plan involves a combination of upgrades to some helicopters in the existing fleet and replacement of others with military versions of commercial helicopters. After 2020, the Army foresees two new types of rotary-wing aircraft—the Joint Multi-Role rotorcraft (JMR) and the Joint Heavy Lift rotorcraft (JHL)—which will be developed with other service branches to offer greater capabilities than are possible with today’s technology. The upgrade and replacement plans are scheduled to ensure that the age of helicopters in the Army’s fleet does not exceed their useful service lives. (Although Army planning documents indicate that a helicopter should be replaced after 20 years in service, fleet data show that attack/reconnaissance and cargo helicopters are regularly replaced after 27 years and utility helicopters are regularly replaced after 33 years. The alternatives examined by the Congressional Budget Office [CBO] adhere to those higher limits.)

Utility Helicopters

The Army’s approximately 1,800 utility helicopters constitute slightly more than half of its total inventory of rotary-wing aircraft. More than 1,600 of that group are UH-60A and UH-60L Blackhawks; the rest are versions of the Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey. Near-term modernization plans for utility helicopters include upgrades to the UH-60s to improve performance and extend their service lives to well beyond 2030. The Hueys are currently being replaced with UH-72A Lakotas.

After 2038, the Army plans to replace the Lakotas and the upgraded Blackhawks with the JMR. (The JMR concept envisions attack/reconnaissance and utility versions based on a common design; the initial JMR variant is to be an attack aircraft. The JMR is discussed with attack/reconnaissance helicopters later in this chapter.)

UH-60 Blackhawk and Upgrades

The single-rotor, twin-turbine-engine UH-60 Blackhawk is the Army’s second-largest helicopter. (Table 1-1 lists the main characteristics of helicopters in the Army’s current fleet.) The Army has two Blackhawk versions, the UH-60A and UH-60L, the newer L-model has more powerful engines and a strengthened transmission that gives it improved performance in a variety of operating conditions. The UH-60L’s MTOGW (maximum takeoff gross weight) is 22,000 pounds; for the UH-60A it is 20,250 pounds.2 Cargo can be carried inside the aircraft or on external cargo hooks. The Blackhawk’s crew consists of a pilot, a copilot, and a crew chief/gunner. The helicopter can accommodate 14 additional passengers, and it has space for four litters to transport casualties.

Table 1-1. 

Characteristics of Army Helicopters

Source: Congressional Budget Office based on data from the Department of the Army.

Notes: MTOGW = maximum takeoff gross weight; n.a. = not applicable; UH-60A, UH-60L = Blackhawk utility helicopters; UH-72A = Lakota light utility helicopter; CH-47D/F = Chinook cargo helicopter; OH-58C = Kiowa observation helicopter; OH-58D = Kiowa Warrior helicopter; ARH = Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter; AH-64A/D = Apache/Longbow Apache attack helicopter.

a. Measurements are in feet.

b. 2.75-inch diameter Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets fired from seven-tube launchers (OH-58D and ARH) and nineteen-tube launchers (AH-64).

c. Laser-guided Hellfire (OH-58D, ARH, AH-64A/D) or radar-guided Longbow Hellfire (AH-64D only).

The Army is developing a new Blackhawk, the UH-60M, with a more powerful engine, enhanced rotor system, and digital avionics based on the Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS, a flexible software architecture the Army is using for avionics upgrades throughout its helicopter fleet). New equipment aboard the UH-60M will provide more protection against infrared-guided missiles and other threats. The new configuration also will include integrated vehicle management systems, which increase an aircraft’s reliability and make it simpler to maintain. The MTOGW of the M-model Blackhawk will be the same as that of the UH-60L, but its external hauling capacity will be 9,000 pounds, 1,000 pounds more than the L-models. The UH-60M also will be able to carry heavier payloads over longer distances.

The Army’s modernization plan calls for procurement of 1,227 UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters, all of them newly built (rather than rebuilt A- or L-model Blackhawks). Development of the UH-60M began in 2000 and is planned for completion in 2010. The Army projects the total cost for research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDT&E) at about $820 million (see Table 1-2). Procurement of the UH-60M began with the purchase of five aircraft in 2005 (with some advance funding from 2004). Final procurement is scheduled for 2025. The total cost of procurement is projected at just under $19 billion, with a unit cost of about $15.5 million. By comparison, the unit cost for the UH-60A was about $9.4 million; the unit cost for the UH-60L was about $9.5 million.

Table 1-2. 

Cost Estimates for Past and Planned Army Helicopter Programs

(Millions of 2007 dollars)


Source: Congressional Budget Office based on data from the Department of the Army.

Notes: Estimates in italic type are based on CBO’s analysis of analogous systems and on work published by RAND (see Jon Grossman and others, Vertical Envelopment and the Future Transport Rotorcraft: Operational Considerations for the Objective Force [Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Arroyo Center, 2003]). Estimates in roman type are based on the Army’s acquisition data.

RDT&E = research, development, testing, and evaluation.

a. RDT&E appropriations pay for scientific research, design, development, and testing of systems and the manufacturing technology necessary to produce them.

b. Procurement appropriations pay for aircraft manufacturing and for support and training equipment, technical data, and maintenance publications.

c. Quantities are notional: The Joint Multi-Role quantity would replace, one-for-one, all Longbow Apache Block III, Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters, and UH-60M helicopters. The Joint Heavy Lift quantity could equip 15 aviation battalions (one for each planned Future Combat Systems brigade) including training and spare aircraft. Data reflect Army purchases only. Under current plans, most of the aircraft would be purchased after 2030. Purchases for the other programs in this table would be completed by 2030.

UH-72A Lakota

The UH-72A single-rotor, twin-turbine-engine light utility helicopter is a version of the Eurocopter EC-145 built to military standards and designed to transport troops, supplies, and equipment. The UH-72A entered into service in 2007. It is much smaller than the Blackhawk (its MTOGW is 7,900 pounds), and it is not intended to operate in battle zones. In addition to its crew of a pilot and copilot, the UH-72A can carry eight passengers.

The Army initiated the light utility helicopter program in 2004 to replace the UH-1 Huey general support helicopter and the OH-53C Kiowa observation helicopter, both of which are being retired. The total RDT&E cost for the light utility helicopter was $3.3 million. The Army began procuring the aircraft in 2006 (with some advance funding from 2005) with an initial purchase of 16 Lakotas. It anticipates a total fleet of 322, the last of which will be procured in 2016. The total procurement cost is projected at just over $1.7 billion; the average cost per aircraft is about $5.4 million.

Cargo Helicopters

The Army’s only cargo helicopter is the CH-47 Chinook, early versions of which were first introduced in 1962. Currently, there are more than 400 in Army service. The current CH-47D entered service in 1984. Over the long term, the Army hopes to develop the JHL aircraft for carrying much heavier loads longer distances and at higher speeds than is possible with the CH-47.

CH-47 Chinook and Upgrades

The tandem-rotor, twin-turbine-engine CH-47 Chinook is used to transport cargo, troops, and weapons. With a 50,000 pound MTOGW, the CH-47D is the largest of the Army’s helicopters. Its flight crew includes a pilot, copilot, flight engineer, and crew chief, and it can carry up to 33 passengers or 24 medevac litters. The CH-47D carries cargo internally or externally on cargo hooks (with a maximum external load of 26,000 pounds).

The Army is upgrading all of its Chinooks from the CH-47D to the CH-47F configuration, with a more powerful engine and an improved transmission. The F-model began to enter service in 2007. The MTOGW for the CH-47F is the same as for the CH-47D, but the engine upgrade allows the CH-47F to transport the same payload over longer distances. Additional upgrades include a new cockpit with a digital avionics suite based on the CAAS, structural improvements, improvements to increase reliability and maintainability, improvements for survivability, and airframe modifications to reduce the time needed to disassemble and reassemble the helicopters before and after deployment on Air Force C-5 or C-17 aircraft.

Current plans call for procurement of 510 CH-47F aircraft—119 of them new and 391 remanufactured CH-47Ds. Development of the CH-47F began in 1995 and was completed in 2007. The Army projects a total cost for RDT&E at just under $200 million. The first 14 of the F-model Chinooks were purchased in 2003, and the final purchases are scheduled for 2018. The Army projects that total procurement will cost slightly more than $12.3 billion. The unit cost for the CH-47F is close to $24.1 million; the CH-47D’s unit cost was about $10.6 million.

Joint Heavy Lift Rotorcraft

The Army hopes to develop a much larger rotorcraft to support aerial maneuver tactics for units in the Future Combat Systems (FCS).3 The JHL would replace the Chinook, which CBO estimates would begin retiring around 2030. Initial JHL goals call for an aircraft that can transport up to 29 tons—the currently anticipated weight of a vehicle in the FCS—to a radius of about 500 nautical miles at speeds greater than 250 knots. (For comparison, preliminary designs for the CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter that the Marine Corps plans to put in service around 2016 show the ability to carry cargo of about 14 tons at speeds of slightly more than 100 knots to a radius of 100 nautical miles.4)

Because such a large increase in performance over that of current systems is likely to carry high development and procurement costs, the Army’s aviation plan calls for collaborating with the Air Force on the JHL program. The assumption is that the Air Force will pursue an aircraft with similar capabilities to replace its fleet of C-130 theater transport aircraft. The Army is currently evaluating the technical feasibility of the JHL concept.

A 2003 RAND study analyzed the costs and capabilities of alternative concepts for a JHL. 5 On the basis of information in that study, CBO estimates that the development costs for the JHL will be about $14 billion over a period of 17 years. Procurement costs will depend on the number of aircraft purchased and on the production rate. (The Army and Air Force have not yet established inventory objectives for the JHL.) To produce 500 aircraft at a rate of 32 per year, for example, CBO estimates the unit cost would average about $170 million and total procurement would come to $85 billion.

Those costs can be compared with costs for current Department of Defense rotorcraft, such as the Marine Corps’s CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter and the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, although both have far less capability than is envisioned for the JHL. According to projection of the Naval Air Systems Command, it will cost $4 billion to develop and about $12 billion to put a fleet of 152 CH-53K aircraft into service, at a unit cost of about $77 million. Current estimates indicate that development will cost about $12 billion; procurement will cost about $41 billion; and the 456 V-22s for the Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force will have a unit cost of $90 million.

Attack/Reconnaissance Helicopters

The Army currently operates over 1,200 attack/reconnaissance helicopters; about 700 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and over 500 OH-58C Kiowa and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior observation helicopters. In the near term, the Army plans to complete conversion of its Apaches from the original A-model to the upgradedD-model, the Longbow Apache. Current plans call for that upgrade to be followed by the so-called Longbow Apache Block III (AB3) configuration. Also in the near term, the Army plans to replace the OH-58D with the new Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH). The unarmed OH-58C helicopters are being replaced by UH-72A Lakotas. In the long term, the Army hopes to replace its entire attack/reconnaissance fleet with an attack version of the JMR.

OH-58C Kiowa and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior

The OH-58C Kiowa is a single-rotor, single-turbine-engine light observation helicopter. With a 3,200-pound MTOGW, the OH-58C is the smallest of the Army’s helicopters. It can carry three people other than the pilot (a copilot or observer and up to two other passengers) or small amounts of cargo (up to 950 pounds). More than 200 Kiowas are currently assigned to National Guard Aviation Service and Support Battalions.

The OH-58D is similar to the OH-58C, but its engine is more powerful and it has a redesigned rotor system. It also has a slightly larger MTOGW of 5,200 pounds. The additional capacity is needed to accommodate its reconnaissance sensors and up to four Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, four Stinger air-to-air missiles, two seven-round 2.75-inch rocket pods, or two 0.50-caliber machine guns mounted on pylons on either side of its fuselage. The OH-58D has a mast-mounted sight (over the main rotor) that carries a television sensor, a thermal imaging sensor, a laser rangefinder–designator, and an optical bore sight.

AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter and Upgrades

The Army has two models of the single-rotor, twin-turbine-engine Apache attack helicopter: the AH-64A and the AH-64D Longbow. Each carries a crew consisting of a pilot and a copilot/gunner.

The older AH-64A is armed with a 30-millimeter chain gun, and it can carry up to 16 laser-guided Hellfire missiles and 76 2.75-inch rockets (in pods of 19 rockets each), in various combinations. (Four Hellfire missiles can be interchanged with one rocket pod.) The AH-64A is equipped with a target acquisition and designation sight that consists of a direct-view optical telescope, a day television sensor, a night vision sensor, and a forward-looking infrared sensor. Most of the 700 AH-64A aircraft purchased by the Army have been upgraded to the D-model configuration. Eventually, about 115 will be retired as A-models. The remainder will be upgraded to the D-model configuration.

The most significant improvements in the D-model are its ability to employ radar-guided Longbow Hellfire missiles and its ability to carry the mast-mounted Longbow fire control radar (FCR), which allows the helicopter to detect and attack targets when rain, fog, or smoke would compromise the A-model’s sensors and laser designator. Other modifications include enhancements to the cockpit, navigation systems, and communications systems that allow a single FCR-equipped Longbow Apache to control Longbow Hellfire missiles carried by AH-64D aircraft that are not equipped with the radar sensor. The Army plans to procure 666 AH-64D helicopters. (The planned AH-64D inventory is 634 aircraft, but 32 additional helicopters will be procured to replace war losses.) The Army plans to install FCR kits on 227 of its Longbow Apaches.

Development of the AH-64D aircraft upgrades began in 1988 and was completed in 2005 at a total RDT&E cost of about $941 million. Procurement began in 1996 (with some advance funding from 1995) with the initial purchase of 24 aircraft. The Army plans to procure the last of its Longbow Apaches in 2010. According to the Army’s projections, the total procurement cost for the portion of the program to upgrade the aircraft is just over $11 billion; the average cost is about $16.5 million. With the cost of the FCR kits included, the unit cost for the D-model upgrade is about $18 million. By comparison, the unit cost for the AH-64A was about $20 million.

Although upgrades to the Longbow configuration are not complete, the Army is pursuing plans to upgrade the D-model Apache to the AB3 configuration, which will enter service in 2011. The AB3 will incorporate some systems and associated capabilities that were planned for the Comanche helicopter, which was canceled in 2004. New communications and processing systems will allow that Apache to better interact with Army ground units, such as Stryker brigades and FCS-equipped brigades. The AB3 also will include an improved transmission and an extended-range FCR to complement the Joint Air Ground Missile, a longer range replacement for the Longbow Hellfire missile.

In all, the Army plans to purchase 634 AB3 helicopters. Development began in 2005 and is to be completed in 2016. The total RDT&E cost is projected at a little less than $1.1 billion. The initial purchase of eight AB3 aircraft is scheduled for 2010 (with some advance funding from 2009); the last one is expected to be procured in 2024. Total procurement costs are projected to be about $6.4 billion, and the unit cost is estimated at $10 million.

Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter

The ARH program was initiated in 2004 to replace the retiring OH-58D Kiowa Warrior aircraft. The ARH is a single-rotor, single-turbine-engine helicopter designed for reconnaissance and light attack. At 5,250 pounds, its MTOGW is close to that of the OH-58D. The Kiowas were built with the Bell 406 commercial fuselage; the ARH is expected to have the Bell 407 fuselage.

The ARH crew will consist of a pilot and a copilot/gunner. The helicopter can carry up to four Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, one or two 7-round 2.75-inch rocket pods or 0.50-caliber or 7.62-millimeter machine guns. In lieu of the mast-mounted sensor on the OH-58D, the ARH will have a nose turret with a color television sensor, a forward-looking infrared sensor, a laser rangefinder, and a laser designator and spot tracker. The digital cockpit of the ARH is based on the CAAS.

The Army’s latest published plan for the ARH projects total RDT&E costs of $749 million through completion in 2009. Procurement is scheduled to begin with 16 aircraft in 2008 and to end in 2017. Total procurement costs for 512 aircraft were projected by the Army at just over $5.3 billion, with a unit cost of $8.9 million. By comparison, the unit cost for the OH-58D was $10.9 million.

Joint Multi-Role Rotorcraft

Starting in 2023, the Army’s aviation modernization plan calls for the JMR to be developed jointly with the Marine Corps. The JMR will replace the fleet of Longbow AB3 attack helicopters as they are retired beginning around 2030. Subsequently, a utility version of the JMR will replace the Blackhawk as it begins to be retired around 2038, CBO estimates. Under the current concept, the various versions of the JMR will have all of the capabilities of the Blackhawk, Apache, and ARH, with some new capabilities based on improvements in technology that may be achieved in the coming decade.

CBO based its estimate of the cost, in the absence of definitive plans for the JMR, on the costs for the aircraft it would replace: the Apache, Longbow Apache, and AB3; and the Blackhawk. CBO used historical costs for those programs as a starting point to arrive at an estimate for RDT&E of $3.7 billion from 2019 to 2026. For 2,400 JMRs—enough for a one-for-one replacement of the Army’s Apaches and Blackhawks—and a full production rate of about 200 JMRs per year, CBO estimates a unit cost for the JMR at $24 million and a total procurement cost of about $57 billion. For purposes of comparison, CBO estimates that the total cost of developing and purchasing the AH-64A, AH-64D, AB3, and ARH (beginning in 1973 and ending in 2024) will come to $46 billion and that the figure for the UH-60A, UH-60L, and UH-60M helicopters will be $37 billion (from 1968 to 2025).

There is significant uncertainty about the capabilities, technology, and costs associated with the JMR. As is the case for other programs that are either mostly conceptual or in the early stages of development, there is a greater risk of cost and schedule overruns than would attend more definite designs based on proven technologies. Although the cost estimates for the JMR consider risk to some extent, CBO expects that its estimates will change, perhaps significantly, as the JMR is more clearly defined.


The ambiguity about what distinguishes utility helicopters from cargo helicopters is illustrated by another category, special operations helicopters (designated by the MH- prefix), which carry specialized systems for supporting special operations forces deep behind enemy lines. The MH- designation supersedes the UH- and CH- designations for the Army’s MH-60 Blackhawks and MH-47 Chinooks. Inventory quantities quoted in this report include special operations helicopters, but they are not discussed in detail because they are operated outside the general force structure. (See the appendix.)


MTOGW is the weight of the helicopter along with all equipment, stores, fuel, munitions, cargo, crew, and passengers.


The FCS is proposed as a single program that would include manned and unmanned aerial and ground vehicles, missile launchers, and communications links. See Congressional Budget Office, The Army’s Future Combat Systems Program and Alternatives (August 2006).


The JHL initially was planned as a joint program of the Army and the Marine Corps. However, the two service branches’ dissimilar requirements did not allow for the cost-effective design of a single aircraft. In particular, an aircraft that would satisfy the Army’s performance goals would probably be far too large for operation aboard amphibious ships. Although it is currently developing the CH-53K, the Marine Corps is expected to remain interested in the JHL and could join the program in the future.


See Jon Grossman and others, Vertical Envelopment and the Future Transport Rotorcraft: Operational Considerations for the Objective Force (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Arroyo Center, 2003), available from

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