What About Army Aviation?

July 1, 2001

In October 1999, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Chief of Staff of the Army, proposed a far-reaching plan aimed at making the force lighter, swifter, and more versatile. He called for nothing less than a “transformation” of the force, but many noticed that he left out a key component.

His plan hinged on fielding a new family of 20-ton land vehicles, fleets of which would be networked over the battlefield. Each “Future Combat System” would punch like a 70-ton M1 Abrams tank and yet possess far greater tactical mobility and strategic deployability. The implication was that, with this “system of systems” approach, the Army would be able to rush its forces to virtually any hot spot and prosecute any type of conflict.

Shinseki’s speech startled many, but not just for what it said. Equally surprising was what was left out–Army aviation. The Chief simply did not mention the helicopter force, an omission that sparked immediate questions about aviation’s role in the “transformed” Army of the future.

Shinseki later acknowledged aviation’s exclusion from his plan that October, but defended its absence by noting that transformation was still in the early stages of development. Meanwhile, Gen. John M. Keane, vice chief of staff, reassured aviators they were “an integral part of where we’re going.” He pledged support for two main aviation programs-the RAH-66 Comanche and AH-64D Apache-and promised a comprehensive aviation plan.

Nearly two years later, the Army is still struggling to define aviation’s role in the transformed force, and the branch’s ultimate shape remains in flux. Simultaneously, key modernization programs face problems. Maintaining high warfighting readiness has become a constant battle. And one round of recent Army budget drills found that, in the 2002­07 period, aviation programs were underfunded to the tune of $7.8 billion.

The New Blueprint

Six months after the “vision” speech, Army leaders did finally produce a new aviation blueprint. It was at an April 4, 2000, press conference that officials unveiled the “2000 Army Aviation Modernization Plan,” about which Army briefers were relentlessly upbeat. “I want everyone to understand that our senior leadership, our Army, and Congress acknowledge this as a good news story,” said Brig. Gen. Craig Hackett, the Army’s director of requirements.

The “good news story” of Army aviation had three basic and interrelated objectives. The Army sought to:

Winnow down the force to four helicopter types-AH-64D Apache gunships, UH-60 Black Hawk transports, RAH-66 Comanche armed reconnaissance craft, and CH-47 Chinook heavy lifters.

Equip active and reserve units with identical types of aircraft to make them interchangeable.

Reorganize all active and reserve helicopter forces into “Multi-Functional Battalions” containing several types of aircraft, not just one, as is the case today.

Step one–and a key to the first two goals–was a wholesale retirement of the National Guard’s hundreds of AH-1 Cobra gunships and UH-1 Huey utility helicopters. Keeping such a huge number of creaking aircraft airworthy is expensive. Shedding them would free up money to update and procure modern helos and allow a rebalancing of forces among active and reserve units.

Under the plan, the Hueys were to be replaced with Black Hawks and the Cobras with OH-58 Kiowas, AH-64 Apaches, and in time, RAH-66 Comanches. Many Chinooks would be updated as well.

Equally important, Army officials committed the service to the concept of the Multi-Functional Battalion to make aviation troops more deployable, sustainable, and flexible. This basic building block would enable the Army to tailor helicopter forces for different missions, especially contingency operations. Each basic battalion would include a mix of 10 Comanches, 10 Apaches, and 10 Black Hawks. Chinooks would provide support.

The MFB, they said, would also be more adaptable to joint and coalition warfare, keeping Army aviation attuned to the transformed ground force.

Today, a typical Army division would go to war with an aviation brigade comprising two chopper battalions-one battalion containing 24 attack and scout helicopters and a second with 24 heavy-lift aircraft. Each division has a 16-helicopter air cavalry squadron. All told, the Army’s divisional structure has 51 combat units-33 attack­scout battalions and 18 cav squadrons. Full implementation of the MFB concept would reduce the total number from 51 regular units to 40 MFBs.

The Momentum Fades

It was an ambitious plan. With its announcement, Army aviation finally seemed to gain some much-needed momentum. But it did not last long. After a full year of study by several high-level task forces and much deliberation at the general officer level, the Army clearly is treading water.

The original plan pinpointed 2002 as the year the service would start converting aviation units to the multifunctional design. That target date has slipped badly, however.

Maj. Gen. Anthony R. Jones, commanding general of the Aviation Center and School, Ft. Rucker, Ala., recently announced that there would be no change in aviation units until 2008. The reason, said Army officials: The conversion to the MFB structure would likely prove too difficult and costly in the near term.

Over the past year, possible paths for aviation transformation were studied by a special task force convened by Keane. As part of its assessment, the panel calculated the overall cost of transformation in the period 2002-07 to be more than $3 billion. That sum never made it into the funded column in the Army’s budget plans.

A large portion of the cost was associated with changes which would take place after retirement of the Army’s Vietnam-vintage Cobras (by the end of 2001) and equally aged Hueys (by the end of 2004).

Officials discovered that the act of striking those aircraft from the inventory generated a new and expensive problem. The Army faced a need to spend roughly $1.7 billion to retrain all of the pilots, crew members, and maintainers who had been associated with these graveyard-bound helicopters. Otherwise, they could not be shifted to Apache, Kiowa, and Black Hawk aircraft in the new aviation units.

That was not all. Army officials noted that replacing the old aircraft with newer types would have forced the Army to carry out expensive upgrades of old Cobra and Huey facilities, which were not equipped to conduct modern aircraft maintenance, repair, and operations. The estimated cost of these modifications: $671 million.

Aviation transformation also stimulated new personnel requirements, which collectively posed a major burden. According to the Keane task force, implementation of the MFB concept would have forced the service to create 2,106 new aviation spaces. In that additional complement would be nearly 600 new pilots, each representing a training bill of more than $800,000.

Without an overall personnel increase, it would not be possible to fill aviation’s needs, officials said. Why? No other Army sector would agree to give up even a single officer or soldier.

First, the Ground Force

The aviation plan also has run into service politics, which have contributed to delays. In the Army, several officers explained, there was mounting concern that the aviation branch, by following its plan, was about to get ahead of the other components on the transformation path.

They note that the overall design of the transformed Army-the so-called “Objective Force”-has not been determined. That is because the centerpiece of the ground force, the Future Combat System, is only a concept at present. It will not be fielded until 2008 at the earliest and possibly as late as 2012.

The idea is that, until FCS takes a definitive shape, the Objective Force should remain somewhat fluid, and large-scale aviation changes would be premature. “We have to decide what the ground force looks like before we settle on aviation,” remarked one Army officer. “We need it to match. If we’re not certain, it’s not the right thing to do yet.”

Service sources said the status of the Comanche armed reconnaissance helicopter-with deployment to come no earlier than 2008-was a factor in delaying aviation transformation. The Army does not have enough attack and reconnaissance aircraft to meet active and reserve requirements. Without the Comanche, the Army faced the prospect of under-resourcing aviation formations, possibly for as long as a decade. Active units, with some exceptions, would have 80 percent of requirement; reserve components would be filled at 60 percent or less.

Waiting for the Comanches would help alleviate this aircraft shortage, officials said.

Keane and others have said the planned divestiture of Cobras and Hueys will remain on schedule. These moves, when completed, will have brought about the mass retirement of up to 400 Cobras and 800 Hueys in a matter of just a few years.

These aircraft are concentrated in the Guard. Previously, Army leaders said they would replace at least some of the Guard losses with helicopters taken from the active component. However, that transfer was predicated on switching to the MFB structure, which would have freed up a certain number of active duty attack, lift, and reconnaissance assets for use in Guard units.

Now that the MFB changeover has been postponed, an obvious question arises: Where will the Army get functional helicopters to equip the Guard and Reserve aviation units

No one has yet officially acknowledged this problem. One Army source suggested the service may be able to pull enough OH-58A/C Kiowa choppers out of mothballs to keep the Guard flying hour program at minimally acceptable levels.

In this way, he said, the Guard might be able to maintain basic pilot proficiency, but units would not have enough assets to take part in any real-world operation.

Congress–the Senate Armed Services Committee, in particular–is keeping an eye on the tribulations of the aviation branch.

For years, Congressional defense panels have directed Army leaders to write a comprehensive aviation strategy, one that would be executable and financially feasible. The April 2000 plan had provided a glimmer of hope that Army aviation could right itself. Recent developments have undercut that view.

According to one Congressional aide, the decision to put aviation transformation into the deep freeze will not, by itself, generate anger on Capitol Hill-not, that is, unless Guard officials in the States raise a ruckus over the lack of materiel resourcing. So far, Guard leaders have not bombarded lawmakers with pleas for help, but they might yet.

Massive Recapitalization

Lawmakers express doubts that the service will be able to address the recapitalization needs of its current fleet. All of the Army’s aviation assets require some degree of overhaul and modernization. This is particularly true of the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter.

That helicopter, first fielded in the mid-1980s, has generated numerous safety-of-flight messages in recent years. Its Reliability and Sustainability will likely continue to be a problem even as the Army converts its older AH-64s into new D model Longbows. The aircraft’s basic components, such as the airframe, are not currently being upgraded as part of the process.

OH-58 Kiowas also must undergo recapitalization if they are to continue serving the Army over the next two decades. Under the aviation transformation strategy, the Army identified a cost of $105 million through 2007 for upgrades to the A and C models. Kiowas will likely stay in the fleet through 2020, perhaps in greater numbers than assumed. As a result, the cost to recapitalize this aircraft likely will go even higher.

The Army, in fact, faces an enormous recapitalization bill. A Reliability and Sustainability task force commissioned by Keane recommended a series of steps to improve aviation R&S over the next seven years. The minimum amount of additional money the Army should spend to resolve its R&S problems, concluded the task force, is $1.3 billion.

Especially vulnerable to budget pressures is the Apache Longbow. Because the Army must fix the basic Apache aircraft at a time when little money is available, the service will be forced to trim its overall procurement of Longbows.

The Army originally intended to convert its entire Apache fleet of about 741 A models to the Longbow configuration, but the number has steadily dwindled. In 1998, the service said it would buy only 530 Longbows. After substantial internal debate early this year, Army officials again recalculated procurement objectives downward. Plans now call for buying only 501.

The cut in Longbow production will likely create another headache: the emergence of a mixed fleet of standard Apaches and more-advanced Longbows.

At present, the Army intends to keep in service about 200 older A model Apaches, which have different training and maintenance requirements. As a result, the service will lose much of the anticipated benefit of economies of scale. Congress disapproves of a two­Apache inventory, and a staff member reports that discontent is brewing.

The Centerpiece

Concern also has begun to envelop the Army’s other critical aviation program, the RAH-66 Comanche.

The Army states forthrightly that Comanche is the centerpiece of aviation. It intends to procure 1,213 of these stealthy aircraft for $43 billion.

Still, investigators in the General Accounting Office and certain officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense claim the program runs a high risk of missing its performance, cost, and schedule goals. It has too much concurrent development, argue these critics, and should be stretched out even further to give the program a chance to straighten itself out.

Despite recent Army moves to address Comanche’s challenges, GAO remains skeptical of the prospects for success. At the top of GAO’s problem list is rising cost.

The bill for Research and Development has grown $85.3 million since GAO’s last audit in 1999 and production costs have increased $4.8 billion.

GAO notes the production cost increases are the result of OSD direction to add 10 percent to the helicopter’s unit cost to ensure enough cash is available for planned procurement. As a result, the Army was forced to change its peak production rate from 72 aircraft per year to 62 per year, stretching fielding three additional years.

However, the Army counters that Comanche is at no higher risk than any other aviation development program and that the aircraft will meet all key performance goals.

Defense acquisition officials this year determined Comanche has a weight problem, but it is not significant enough to require immediate action, as requested by a Pentagon Cost Analysis Improvement Group.

CAIG officials have long voiced concerns about the RAH-66’s weight. They said the helicopter has not met its objectives and is unlikely to do so. Technical advances on which officials had counted to limit Comanche’s heft have not worked. The Army also has added capability to the helicopter, which in turn added to its weight.

Comanche proponents assert that a recently ordered new engine will provide enough horsepower to compensate for any extra pounds the helicopter does not shed prior to production.

For the far term, the outlook is not bright. Now under consideration is just a single new platform, the Future Transport Rotorcraft. If fielded, it would take up the Chinook’s heavy-lift duties and carry the 20-ton Future Combat System.

The Army has had trouble generating momentum behind this project. It had hoped to make it a joint effort with the Marine Corps, but the Corps hasn’t committed itself.

Also, the Army has not been able to settle on a target date for system fielding. Originally, the Army said FTR would take to the skies in 2020; the date was accelerated to 2018 and again last fall to 2015, but it does not appear to have adequate R&D backing to meet that timetable.

No one is even talking about a next-generation attack helicopter, even though the Apache will be nearly 50 years old when the Objective Force is completed. Instead, Army officers contemplate using the Comanche in that role.

However, many aviation observers doubt the Comanche will be as effective as Apache or that the planned Comanche fleet will be big enough to provide aircraft for two mission areas.

The UAV Question

With no new aircraft development programs firmly locked in, Army aviation may be able to expand its portfolio through other means. For several years, aviation officials have asserted they should “own” Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Currently, UAVs belong to the Army’s intelligence community, which is responsible for developing their warfighting doctrine, procuring the systems, and operating them on the battlefield. But, aviation branch proponents argue, as a platform that flies, UAVs should be melded into the aviation domain.

A new project, approved by the Department of Defense this year as an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration, may help solidify aviation’s claim on UAVs. One portion of the effort, called the Hunter Standoff Killer Team ACTD, focuses on pairing UAVs with rotorcraft such as the Apache Longbow and the Comanche. The pilot of the helicopter would be able to control the UAV in flight, setting and resetting its course and directly tasking it to conduct surveillance of certain targets. Ultimately, the effort could help equip UAVs with laser designators which the helicopter could then use to guide in its rockets and missiles, thereby increasing standoff range and improving pilot survivability.

Though top Army aviation officials have lobbied hard for control of UAVs, the Army so far has declined to implement the change. Troops are scheduled to start receiving the service’s new, brigade-level UAV, the Shadow 200, in 2003, while the ACTD project officials intend to field the teaming technology in 2006. Between now and then, the Army must resolve the dispute and find the most effective and logical home for UAVs.

“Controlled Substitution”

Worries about readiness rates also abound. While aviation warfighting units usually meet their readiness requirements, it does not come easily.

In fact, Army sources have said, the apparently healthy state of front-line aviation forces is at least partly illusion. Widespread use of “controlled substitution” is masking a deep and serious readiness problem that must be addressed, they say.

Controlled substitution, though not officially sanctioned, has become a way of life. The drill goes like this: Troops take one helicopter out of service because of a failure, for example, in the nose gearbox. They don’t have an immediate replacement, so it sits in the hangar. In the meantime, a second aircraft suffers a rotor blade failure. That part, too, is not available. Rather than have two helicopters out of service, the unit commander tells the maintainers to take a blade off the first aircraft and install it on the second. Now, the second aircraft is ready to go, but the first aircraft is in even worse shape.

Aviation commanders say that, without resorting to such tactics, their units would fail to achieve a C-1 readiness rating. The Army must employ controlled substitution because older aircraft are tearing through parts at a quick pace and the spares inventory is not sufficient to meet demand, officials say.

It is difficult to predict how far warfighting readiness rates would drop should the Army ban controlled substitution, but some warn that aviation could enter a dangerous decline.

Top Army leaders claim the service is committed to the aviation branch, and the service will not proceed into battle without airborne platforms, now or in the future. However, the cost of restoring the health of Army aviation is high, especially in light of other transformation priorities, and success is not assured.

Erin Q. Winograd is chief editor for “Inside the Army,” a Washington, D.C.-based defense newsletter. This is her first article for Air Force Magazine.