Future of Army Aviation Funding Remains Murky
The Army has ambitious plans to acquire next-generation aircraft as it gears up for great power competition. But uncertainty about future vertical lift programs and other modernization efforts leaves an unclear picture of what lies ahead, analysts say.
The service has about 4,300 piloted aircraft, most of which are helicopters, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The H-60 Black Hawks, AH-64 Apaches and H-47 Chinooks account for most of the rotary wing platforms.
“Their eventual replacement dominates the Army’s future procurement costs,” said a recent CBO report titled, “The Cost of Replacing Today’s Army Aviation Fleet.”
The study projects that the annual cost of replacing the systems in the current fleet would decline during the 2020s, from about $4 billion in 2018 to approximately $1.5 billion in 2027, before increasing to more than $4 billion per year through the early to mid-2030s as procurement for future vertical lift programs ramps up.
“Because the Army made considerable investments in aircraft between 2007 and 2016, relatively few aircraft are near the end of their service life, reducing the number of aircraft to be replaced during the 2020s,” the report said.
Secretary of the Army Mark Esper said the service wants systems that could perform well against advanced adversaries such as China and Russia.
“What we need first and foremost is an attack reconnaissance capability,” he said during remarks at the Brookings Institution. “That’s an aircraft that has the speed, the range, the survivability to penetrate robust air defense systems, get deep behind the enemy and do a number of things.” The future attack reconnaissance aircraft, or FARA, is the No. 1 priority for future vertical lift, he noted. The service hopes to begin procuring it by the late 2020s.
The second priority is the future long-range assault aircraft, or FLRAA, to replace the Black Hawk. The Army also needs to ponder a heavy vertical lift system that could replace the Chinook, he noted. That concept has not been as fleshed out as the FARA or FLRAA.
The Congressional Budget Office’s estimates for Army aviation are subject to several sources of uncertainty, the report noted.
“The characteristics of the [FARA and FLRAA] have not been finalized, and technical challenges could change schedules, characteristics or costs,” the study said. Additionally, an aircraft’s retirement may be accelerated or postponed, platforms may be retired and not replaced, and new systems that do not replace existing aircraft may emerge, it noted.
Increased capabilities of new aircraft may also allow the Army to purchase fewer platforms than it would under CBO’s assumption of a one-for-one replacement of existing aircraft, the report said.
Conversely, the service may need to grow its fleet, depending on what the platforms are asked to do, according to Andrew Hunter, director of the defense-industrial initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“My crystal ball there is definitely murky as to what the likely acquisition objective for these aircraft is because I think the missions they are going to be handling in the future could be a larger set than what we have today,” he said.
The technology for future vertical lift is relatively mature, he said. The biggest challenges confronting the Army are resources and timing.
“How do you make room to put in the investments required to mature these designs into production-ready articles that can be moved into mass production without robbing too deeply from” other programs? he said.
Of the Army’s top six modernization priorities, future vertical lift is No. 3, while long-range precision fires and next-generation combat vehicles are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. The funding available for aircraft will be highly dependent on what’s happening in other parts of the service’s modernization portfolio, Hunter said.
“The Army obviously is … highly interested and motivated to field a new combat ground vehicle,” he said. “If they experience success in that effort … that’s going to be a pretty substantial competitor for resources with aviation.”
Another wild card is whether the Army will be allowed to scale back Chinook modernization to help pay for future vertical lift projects, analysts noted. Lawmakers have pushed back against the proposal. The CBO estimates included Chinook modernization.
“If Congress … says, ‘We’re not going to let you forego this upgrade program,’ then they would have to look elsewhere” to find money for FVL initiatives, Hunter said.
“It’s not obvious whether [Army aviation funding] is going to decline, hold steady or go up,” he added.