Army Aviation Leaders Look to Congress for Help on Budget, Restructure Plan
By Valerie Insinna
Army aviation is in “a period of vulnerability,” said the commanding general of the Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker.
The service’s next generation family of rotorcraft, called future vertical lift, won’t go into low-rate initial production until the early 2030s and won’t be fielded in combat aviation brigades until at least 2037, said Maj. Gen. Michael Lundy in a Jan. 29 speech at the Association of the U.S. Army’s aviation conference. Until then, the Army will rely on legacy equipment, such as AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopters and UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters.
“That's 25 years, 25 years that we can't put at risk,” he said. In order to retain its asymmetric advantage, the Army must invest in upgrades that will modernize aircraft airframes, cockpits, engines, weapons and sensors.
That won’t be easy, Lundy said. "We do have to live within our means. We are a large part of the Army's budget, and I think it's clear every day that the value is there. But the Army is under pressure, and we've got to live within our fiscal constraints.”
With sequester to be reinstated in fiscal year 2016, Army officials are looking to Congress to eliminate or at least lessen the blow of mandatory spending cuts.
"During the 2013 round of sequestration we had under 10 percent of our force trained and ready for global contingencies," saidGen. Daniel Allyn, Army vice chief of staff. "We brought that number back up at the end of 2014 to just over 30 percent today after 18 months of relentless efforts by our commanders and leaders across our great Army. But we had to mortgage our near and midterm modernization to do so, and we will not restore balance across personnel, readiness and modernization for several more years.”
The return of sequestration could trigger the service to make further cuts to force structure, readiness and modernization, Lundy and Allyn said.
Furthermore, the Army needs Congress’ approval on a plan to restructure its aviation forces. This plan includes the retirement of the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior reconnaissance helicopter and TH-67 training helicopter fleets, as well as the transfer the Army National Guard’s fleet of Apaches to the active component.
Allyn and Lundy described the restructure plan as undesirable, but ultimately the service’s only option for finding the money necessary to craft a technologically advanced future force.
“These cutbacks were not something we chose, but in order to maximize the capability and capacity of our total force and protect our critical modernization programs such as future vertical lift, the improved turbine engine program and the UH-60L digital [cockpit] upgrades, crafting the aviation restructure initiative was necessary,” Allyn said. “By divesting three aging aviation platforms, we can keep our newest, most modern capabilities more ready now and afford critical modernization efforts as we move toward this uncertain future."
Congress in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act called for the formation of a national commission to study the restructure plan, which is opposed by state governors and organizations that advocate for the National Guard.
The commission’s recommendations will ultimately help dictate the path forward, Allyn said.
“The good news is Congress gave us the ability to take necessary preparatory actions [in the 2015 NDAA], like beginning to train our aviators for the future fleet this fiscal year,” he said. The result is that as aircraft are moved around the force, there are trained pilots awaiting them.
Kiowa Warrior aircraft are also being divested, with six squadrons planned to be eliminated this year, Lundy said.
Lundy said he is confident that the commission will support the plan. “If we don't do this, we're not going to be able to field all of the modernized aircraft that we've got to put in the hands of our soldiers.”
Too much of the focus on the aviation restructure initiative hasbeen the transfer of Army National Guard Apaches, he said.
“That’s a very small component of it, and there are reasons for it,” he said. The restructure “is really about allowing us the capability to modernize our force.”
Modernization will be slower than Army leaders would like, but the service will at least retain its advantage in the near and midterm, Lundy said. The service is upgrading its Apaches to the Echo-model and Black Hawks to the Mike-model with a new digital cockpit. It is also considering a “block” strategy to gradually inject new technology into Chinooks, which will be in service until 2060.
In the long term, the Army is betting on a future vertical lift aircraft that will be able to provide increased speed, range, survivability and the ability to operate in any environment, Lundy said. Technology development efforts are currently underway in the joint multi-role program, in which Bell Helicopter and a Sikorsky-Boeing team are designing high speed demonstrator aircraft to fly in 2017.
Money saved by the restructure initiative will go toward funding future capabilities such as the improved turbine engine program that will increase the range of Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, or technologies that enable manned aircraft pilots to control an unmanned aircraft and the weapons and sensors onboard. The service also wants to aquire technologies that allow pilots to fly in degraded visual environments, he said.