- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Maj. Crispin Burke, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
Make no mistake: Army Aviation will feel the effects of sequestration and be forced to cut back, along with the rest of the Army. However, if the Army concentrates on putting trained and qualified people in the right organizations, armed with the right equipment, Army Aviation can weather today’s budget cuts, and move forward into the 21st century.
A bold new proposal would do just that — completely revamping the Army’s aviation brigades in both the active and reserve components by divesting some aircraft, reallocating others, and by integrating Unmanned Aerial Systems (colloquially called "drones") with manned aircraft.
According to the proposal, recently reviewed by the secretary of defense, the Army would retire its entire fleet of single-engine helicopters, including 368 OH-58D scout helicopters, 228 elderly OH-58A/Cs, and 182 TH-67 trainers — a grand total of 778 aircraft. To compensate for the losses, the Army would radically re-shuffle its remaining dual-engine aircraft — replacing the active-duty OH-58 losses with AH-64 Apache helicopters drawn from the National Guard and Reserve, and by moving many of the newly-acquired LUH-72 Lakotas to the training role.
The plan, of course, is not without its detractors. According to Politico, fifty state governors voiced their dismay over the loss of the Guard’s Apache helicopters in a letter to President Obama. Indeed, each aircraft lost represents not just a machine, but an aircrew, a team of maintainers, and plenty of jobs, livelihoods, and families affected.
Moreover, the loss of the OH-58D is certainly a bitter one. But budget cuts are coming, and Army Aviation is left with few alternatives, following the failure of both expensive replacements (Comanche in 2003), and off-the-shelf options (Armed Recon Aircraft in 2008 and Armed Aerial Scout in 2013). It’s important to note, though, that reconnaissance involves more than just aircraft — it’s trained and qualified people, and fortunately, OH-58 pilots are among the most experienced in the Army. The OH-58 community has an incredible warrior ethos, and despite the loss of a beloved airframe, their expertise will matter most. We shouldn’t fear aircraft transitions — after all, were we a less capable force when we transitioned from Hueys to Black Hawks, or from Cobras to Apaches?
Of course, once Army Aviation gives people the right training to do the job, it’s time to focus on the organizations — perhaps the most audacious step in the way forward. The Army National Guard would face some difficult challenges, particularly as its Apache pilots transition to a new aircraft (the UH-60 Black Hawk), and with it, a new mission.
Fortunately, Black Hawks are far more useful for homeland defense and providing defense support for civil authorities (Title 32). The Guard would be receiving 111 of them to offset the loss of the Apaches. Moreover, the Guard would still be able to provide Title 10 to overseas fights through its remaining fleet of Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks. In fact, proportionally speaking, the Army National Guard would suffer less than the active component, in terms of total aircraft loss (just 17 percent of the Guard force, compared with to nearly 30 percent of the active component).
With regards to the active component, the Army has also taken the unprecedented step of pairing unmanned aircraft with manned aircraft. Each newly-formed Attack Reconnaissance Squadron would consist of three troops of eight AH-64 Apaches apiece. Each troop, in turn, would be augmented with a platoon of four Shadow drones, many of which would be culled from deactivated BCTs. Each aviation brigade, additionally, would receive a company of 12 armed Grey Eagle UAS, a true medium-altitude, long endurance (MALE) airframe. It’s an acknowledgement that unmanned aviation is here to stay — manned and unmanned crewmembers will train, deploy, and fight alongside one another on a permanent basis. In fact, the Army is arguably far ahead of the other services in this regard.
Once we have the right people, placed in the right organizations, the equipment falls into place. If all goes as planned, the rotary-wing community will be an entirely dual-engine force. Students will begin their aviation career in the LUH-72 Lakota, recently acquired by the Army, with a proven track record in medical evacuation and law enforcement.
Old-timers may lament the Lakota’s glass cockpit, dual engines, and GPS, but the fact of the matter is every single combat aircraft in the conventional U.S. Army’s inventory has these features. We need to seriously rethink what we should expect from students in flight school. Whereas, 10 years ago, the use of GPS would have been verboten, today, it’s a necessity, as GPS approaches dominate the instrument routes. Moreover, while students may no longer perform autorotations all the way to the ground, they’ll have to learn to identify engine malfunctions in a multi-engine aircraft, a skill which takes a considerable amount of time to learn as students progress to new airframes.
All told, reducing and simplifying the Army Aviation rotary-wing fleet — from seven airframes to four — will save the community billions of dollars over the years, and we’d be a much more modern and powerful force for it.
The choice is clear — proven people, strong organizations, the right equipment.
Major Crispin Burke is a serving U.S. Army officer. Direct all angry comments towards his Twitter account, @CrispinBurke.