war on the rocks

A Bleak Future for Army Aviation?

February 22, 2016

The nation’s largest military service has found itself in search of a future as its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan wanes. For that reason, the National Commission on the Future of the Army’s report was met with anticipation, especially within the Army aviation community, where pilots have flown millions of combat flight hours in aircraft older than the men and women in the cockpits. Unfortunately, the document envisions a bleak future for Army aviation — the commission’s recommendations may be the most politically palatable, but they’re not the right choice for a combat-ready aviation force.

First, the commission pays scant attention to what will surely become a major player in the future of Army aviation — unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones. Just a few years ago, UAS operators and technicians represented the largest personnel growth field in Army aviation — ironic for a function that is labeled “unmanned.” Indeed, while the Air Force’s drone fleet has encountered growing pains, the Army has embraced the mission, embedding platoons of drones in many of its attack helicopter companies. Unfortunately, the commission did more to explore countering enemy drones than it did employing them, which is a glaring omission in a document dedicated to exploring the Army’s future.

Second, the commission slipped in an odd recommendation almost as an aside: The Army should consider developing an armed reconnaissance helicopter to replace the aging OH-58 Kiowa. Sorry, but we’ve been there and tried that at least three times since the early 1980s. The ARH-70 Arapaho program stalled in 2008 after production costs nearly doubled and, five years later, Armed Aerial Scout failed to take off due to sequestration. And, of course, prior to both these failed attempts was the Army’s RAH-66 Comanche — the poster child for dysfunctional development which ate up nearly $7 billion. The commission places too much faith in an acquisitions program that has hardly delivered since the “Big Five” program (the Apache, Black Hawk, Bradley, Abrams, and Patriot) over three decades ago.

It’s a straw man argument to claim Apache attack helicopters cannot replace armed reconnaissance helicopters, as U.S Army Col. Phil Ryan recently wrote at War on the Rocks. Attack helicopters aren’t replacing scouts. Attack helicopters and unmanned aircraft are replacing scouts. Is it the ideal solution? Perhaps not. Is it the best solution possible, given limited resources? You bet. Doing so capitalizes on Shadow drones culled from inactive Army brigades, building stronger organizations from the rubble of inactive ones.

Finally, there’s the commission’s raison d’être: examining the Army’s plan to transfer its attack helicopters from the National Guard to the active component, replacing the Guard’s Apache helicopters with Black Hawk utility helicopters. The plan has sparked controversy within the National Guard, with one state adjutant general penning an op-ed implying the federal government should pay for and equip the National Guard with attack helicopters so that the Guard can serve as an armed check on the authority of the federal government (yes, he said that).

Hysteria, however, shouldn’t overshadow the facts. The National Guard Bureau’s proposal to keep 120 attack helicopter in six battalions was found to cost taxpayers an additional $400 million (plus an additional $150 million to acquire additional UASs), while leaving two Regular Army divisions unable to train with their respective attack helicopter battalions, according to a Government Accountability Office report in 2015. Worse yet, the report found that allowing the National Guard to keep 120 Apache helicopters while simultaneously leaving every Army division with its full complement of attack helicopters would cost over $5 billion, with an additional $338 million in annual sustainment costs.

Though there may be few “boots on the ground” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other global hot spots, there’s always a demand for Army aviation, whether it be for attack, heavy lift, or humanitarian assistance. Those responsible for charting the future of Army aviation must do so with the needs of the nation in mind — right people, right aircraft, right organizations, all at the right cost.

 

Crispin Burke is an Army Aviator stationed at Fort Bragg. His views are his own and not those of the Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter at @CrispinBurke.

 

Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Tracci Dorgan, U.S. Army