NASHVILLE — As U.S. forces reduce their presence in Afghanistan over the next two years, the Army's helicopter fleet will be busier than ever, officials said.
Fewer forces means they will be more dispersed, and therefore there will be a greater demand for airlift, said Maj. Gen. James Rogers, commander of Army Aviation and Missile Command.
“It’s common sense, when you think about it,” Rogers said. “You need the reaction [capability] and the movement when you have less soldiers.”
“We are the first in and we are the last out," said Maj. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield, commander of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence.
Rogers said the Army’s exit from Afghanistan would likely mirror its withdrawal from Iraq. In 2010, as the U.S. military’s involvement in Iraq transitioned to Operation New Dawn, the Army reduced its troops strength to 50,000 soldiers. Portions of the aviation force were removed to Kuwait also at that point, but retained for combatant commanders if the need arose before the U.S. commitment in Iraq ended.
“I don’t see anything different in Afghanistan,” Rogers said.
But the departure of Army aviation units could create problems for the Afghan army that were not an issue in Iraq, he said. Unlike the Iraqi Army, the Afghans lack an English-speaking officer corps. It also does not have the supply infrastructure or equipment on par with the Iraqis, Rogers said.
As the Afghan drawdown picks up speed next year, Army aviation requirements will at best remain at current levels, he said.
“We could even see an increase in the amount of aviation required,” Rogers said.
Crutchfield said he is warning aviation commanders that they might have to stick around a bit longer than the rest of the force.
“When I talk to commanders, I do not give them a rosy picture that the Army is coming out of Iraq and out of Afghanistan,” he said. “Not so fast Army aviation.”
The high operational tempo is giving Army aviators a chance to work more closely with special operations forces — an indicator of things to come as the Obama administration’s new strategic guidance favors a smaller force that is more reliant on special ops.
Brig. Gen Kevin Mangum, commander of Army Special Operations Aviation Command, said the current deployed force “has matured to such a degree that everything we do is inherently joint.” Of all the SOF missions flown in Afghanistan, more than half are performed by special operators in conventional aircraft, he said.
“From an Army aviation standpoint, [our relationship] has never been better,” Mangum said.
Crutchfield and Mangum are working in tandem on the design and specifications for next generation helicopters. Special operations forces currently retrofit conventional aircraft with custom sensors, weapons and other equipment. In the future vertical lift aircraft that the Army wants to field by 2030 to replace its rotary wing fleet, there might not be a distinction between SOF and conventional variants, Crutchfield said. Having common aircraft would save money and allow conventional and SOF aviators to work more closely, he said.