Spending on Army Aviation Rotorcraft to Start Downhill Slide
It remains to be seen whether the Army and its aging, yet critically important, rotorcraft fleets can stick the landing.
Two of the Army’s major rotorcraft procurement and modernization programs took major hits so the Pentagon could find $13.7 billion in savings over the next five years. Every Army aircraft procurement program lost funding going into fiscal year 2014, and none of those calculations factor in the possibility of sequestration that annually could remove another $40 billion to $50 billion from the Pentagon’s budget for a decade.
The cuts seemingly fly in the face of dire modernization needs that led some industry watchers to predict the service would keep its aviation budget aloft at least through 2018, which marks the end of the military’s current five-year budgeting cycle.
The Army’s rotorcraft are used almost continuously and are in need of repairs and upgrades. Many were considered old before a decade of war, and no other technology can replace them, according to an August 2012 report by The Teal Group, a Washington, D.C.-based industry analysis firm. Richard Aboulafia, Teal’s vice president of analysis, stands by his assertions that while global spending on military rotorcraft would plateau at 2013 levels and remain steady for five years, the Pentagon would begin to spend less on helicopters from then into the future.
“The drivers are quite strong: Aging, worn-out fleets and the great importance of force mobility for almost every conceivable military mission,” he wrote. “However, the U.S. military market looks set to ramp down fast after that peak.”
The United States purchases more military rotorcraft than any other country and will remain atop the heap. But Army aviation could take a backseat to more pressing line items, once the immediate necessity of rotorcraft dissipates in tandem with the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration plans to carve $1.3 billion over five years from a program designed to rebuild and upgrade the Apache attack helicopter. It also reduced procurement of the UH-72 light utility helicopter by $400 million. The Army’s total aircraft procurement budget for fiscal year 2014 is down $800 million from a $5.8 billion peak in the current fiscal year.
Paradoxically, rotorcraft occupy an ever more important role because as forces shrink, those troops need to be more mobile to cover the same amount of ground, the report said. A smaller Army will increasingly rely on its helicopters to transport troops and equipment, and provide covering fire and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to ground forces.
For the many missions the U.S. military finds itself tackling — fighting wars, providing humanitarian relief, counterinsurgency — rotorcraft are not only critical, but they have no technological equivalent, the report said.
“Rotorcraft are essential … unlike, for example, aircraft carriers or main battle tanks,” Aboulafia wrote.
Army aviation officials recognize the importance of retaining a healthy helicopter fleet. None have backed down from a dual-pronged strategy to patch beat-up legacy aircraft and upgrade their systems while investing in research and development of a “revolutionary” vertical lift technology to be fielded by 2030.
“Our parallel strategy to sustain and modernize our fleet is paramount. Aggressively pursuing these two complementary lines of effort will allow us to develop the equipment and expertise to field revolutionary technologies in response to speed, range, payload and vertical-lift requirements,” Army aviation chief Maj. Gen. Kevin Mangum wrote in the April edition of Army Aviation Magazine. “This same science and technology endeavor can and will enable us to make evolutionary changes to our current fleet to keep it up to date and capable until we bring future vertical lift to fruition.”
Entire fleets are aging faster than they can be refreshed, thanks to overuse and obsolete technology. The airframes are old and have been run ragged during high operational tempos in support of two decade-long wars.
With few exceptions, the helicopter designs used by the various military branches are at least 30 to 50 years old. The CH-47 Chinook has been around since the early 1960s. Even the relatively new Apache attack helicopters used by the Army are going on their 20th year in service, though they have benefitted from three incremental technology overhauls.
Legacy helicopter designs are irreplaceable from a capability standpoint — no other platform combines hover capability with speed and agility. There is no cheaper way to revamp the various fleets other than buying new aircraft or developing a completely new platform, the report said.
But there are no concrete developmental rotorcraft programs in the offing and nothing other than a new version of the CH-53 coming into service in the next two decades. The sole rotorcraft program that is not an upgrade or remanufacture is the future vertical lift capability that is often cited by Army officials as a game changing technology that must be in service by 2030.
Several rotorcraft manufacturers — Bell Helicopter, a Boeing-Sikorsky partnership, AVX Aircraft and EADS North America — have conceptual plans for an FVL competitor.
Rather than embarking on new platform development, innovation is taking place within the aircraft by increasing the capabilities of existing airframes.
“Much of the innovation in rotorcraft today is happening at the subsystem level, with advances in engines, weapons guidance systems, data links and munitions,” the Teal report said. “Boeing’s AH-64 Apache, soon entering its fourth decade in service and being rebuilt in a third incarnation as the AH-64D Block III, … shows that a relatively old airframe can retain world-class combat effectiveness through technology insertion.”
The Apache program netted $813 million in the Army’s budget request for fiscal year 2014. That will provide funding for 42 remanufactured Block III aircraft, Col. Jeff Hager, the Army’s project manager for Apache attack helicopters, said during a press conference at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual exposition in April. The Army has already taken delivery of 33 of the AH-64E Apaches.
Full-rate production is scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2014 and run through fiscal 2027 to reach all of the 690 aircraft. These will be a combination of remanufactured and new-build aircraft. Fifty-six of the total 690 will be truly “new-build” aircraft requiring all new parts and components, but will not be purchased until 2018 at the soonest as a result of a $1.2 billion cut to the program.
The first 43 produced will be remanufactured AH-64D airframes with existing fuselages, Hager said. The remaining 591 remanufactured aircraft will be made with new fuselages.
Cargo platforms fared better when the budget ax came down. Funding for the CH-47 Chinook dropped from $1.6 billion in fiscal 2013 to $970 million in the 2014 budget request.
Despite fiscal challenges, Col. Robert Marion, cargo helicopters project manager, said he was on schedule and somewhat “boring.”
“We like boring. Boring is good,” Marion said. “If that means other programs get a lot of attention, that’s fine with us. There was no real surprise to us from a cargo perspective” in the budget request.
The CH-47F program was scheduled to award its second five-year multiyear contract in December 2012, at a pricing savings of $423 million. A negotiated settlement was reached with Boeing in December, which resulted in an estimated savings of $810 million, Marion said. The contract award is expected in May. The savings are safe if the contract is awarded by the end of June, he said.
The Army will purchase 28 Chinooks in fiscal year 2014 — six new aircraft and 22 remanufactured. Upgrades include common avionics, digital flight controls, common missile warning systems and increased endurance and reliability through vibration reduction, explained Army officials.
The UH-60 Black Hawk fared best among the Army’s rotary wing portfolio. That program’s budget remained relatively flat, with a mere $400,000 reduction for fiscal 2014. The Army plans to buy 65 new UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for $1.2 billion.
None of the service’s aging aircraft fleets have received as much recent attention as the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, partly because the Army repeatedly launches high-profile but ultimately fruitless efforts to replace it.
The latest of three attempts was shelved earlier this year when a series of tests of armed aerial scout contenders failed to pique the interest of Army officials. None of the five commercial derivative aircraft tested passed muster as an affordable successor to the Kiowa, Army Secretary John McHugh recently told reporters. The program is not officially dead, however a decision that was originally scheduled for January is now expected in summer 2014.
The Army instead invested $184 million to upgrade the Kiowa’s cockpit, sensors, fuselage and tail boom.
The OH-58F program, also known as the cockpit and sensor upgrade program or CASUP, extends the fleet’s service life through 2025. Other improvements include weight reduction, new heaters and universal weapons pylons and targeting displays.
The first Kiowa F-model was flown April 30 at Redstone Arsenal, Ala.
The Army bucked tradition with CASUP by becoming the system integrator, a move that will save $37 million during the research, development and test-and-evaluation phases, and another $551 million during the procurement/production phase.
In the long run, those upgrades may fulfill the Army’s aviation needs until a “revolutionary” technology can be developed and is affordable.
A lieutenant colonel and career Kiowa pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan said it was the aircraft’s subsystems that limited its capability as much as the fleet’s age or operational strength. Its sensors and weapons were not as noticeable a hindrance while fighting a technologically inferior opponent at close range, he explained in a series of emails to National Defense, but asked not to be named.
“The Kiowa, although extremely effective in recon and security operations … was effective due to the counterinsurgency threat that allowed it to operate at short distances from friendly and enemy forces,” he said.
The D-model Kiowa lacks a high-definition target acquisition system, and its fixed weapons system limits its offensive capabilities, he said. Its limited flight ceiling and temperature threshold — improvements the Army is seeking through AAS — are hindrances in future conflicts where close-in combat may be more dangerous, he said.
“If you use a North Korean threat scenario, the [Kiowa] would be almost useless,” he said.
When operational, the OH-58F includes fixes to nearly every one of the problems listed.
Regardless of budgets and technological upgrades, human beings often make the difference and ultimately bridge the capability gap, he said.
In both wars of the past decade, the Kiowa “performed exceptionally not because they were great machines” … but because of the skilled aviators sitting in the cockpit, he said.