When President Barack Obama decided to increase U.S. troop strength by 30,000 in Afghanistan – a process to be completed by late autumn – the U.S. Army found itself re-evaluating its aviation plan and pondering new challenges to its fleet of aging helicopters. Those challenges increased when an earthquake ravaged the Caribbean nation of Haiti on Jan. 12.
“The current Army aviation modernization plan, as proposed through fiscal year 2010, includes a combination of procuring and upgrading existing aviation systems, developing new systems, and buying off-the-shelf equipment,” the Government Accountability Office reported in September 2009.
Two key issues are on the minds of helicopter soldiers – accomplishing build-ups in Afghanistan and Haiti without any immediate increase in helicopter inventories, and defining the future of the light attack mission performed by the OH-58D(R) Kiowa Warrior.
“We carry out air assault and medical evacuation missions,” said Lt. Col. James E. Hostetler, an Army spokesman, referring to Afghanistan. “A large part of our duty consists of simply hauling people and equipment around the country.” Vertical lift offers a way to defeat the improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or roadside bombs, insurgents are planting on Afghanistan’s few passable roads.
The Army has kept three to four Combat Aviation Brigades (CABs) in Iraq, a country just two-thirds the size of Afghanistan, but maintained only one in Afghanistan until recently. The Army has 19 CABs, including eight operated by the National Guard and one in the Army Reserve. A “heavy” CAB comprises four battalions with 100 helicopters, including 48 AH-64D Apaches, 38 UH-60M Black Hawks, 12 HH-60M Black Hawks and 12 CH-47F Chinooks.
Notorious for its mountain elevations and scattered special operations outposts, Afghanistan has always tested military helicopters. Only the twin-tandem Chinook has consistently coped with seasonal winds and “high and hot” conditions in the Hindu Kush.
At the start of this year, the Army had two CABs in Afghanistan; one each from the 3rd Infantry and 82nd Airborne Divisions. The CAB of the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) recently departed Fort Hood, Tex., to join them. The 159th CAB, associated with the 101st Airborne Division, completed a one-year stint last December but was expected almost immediately make a U-turn and go back. At least two other CABs are expected in Afghanistan by late autumn.
Pressure on resources increased when the only Army Reserve CAB, the 244th from Fort Dix, N. J., was deployed to Haiti as part of the humanitarian relief effort following the earthquake.
The Army’s procurement of military helicopters, mostly to replace losses rather than to beef up inventory in the short term, is proving a boon to industry, where the market grew by 30.1 per cent in 2009. The fiscal year 2010 defense appropriations law devoted $3.34 billion to the largest recent increase in U.S. military helicopters.
The Obama administration got its request for $1.26 billion for 79 UH-60M Black Hawks, $882 million for 27 CH-47F/G Chinooks, and $326 million for 54 remarkably economical UH-72 Lakota light utility helicopters. Many of these will replace aircraft lost during ongoing operations.
The administration plans to request similar numbers of additional Black Hawks and Chinooks in fiscal year 2011.
The future of the light attack mission is far from decided. In 2004, the Army cancelled its RAH-66 Comanche battlefield helicopter after almost two decades of developmental efforts. The service presented to Congress an investment strategy to redistribute $14.6 billion of planned Comanche funding through fiscal year 2011 to enhance other Army aviation modernization efforts. Those included the Comanche’s replacement, the ARH-70 Arapaho. But the ARH-70 ran into small but pesky technical glitches and a 40 to 43 percent cost increase. Under legislation known as the Nunn-McCurdy amendment, the price increase dictated a mandatory Pentagon review and the Army cancelled the program in 2008.
Today, post-Comanche, post-Arapaho, the Army is spending $1.3 billion to upgrade its 340 OH-58D(R) Kiowa Warriors and must now devise a new plan to retire and replace them. Officials say the Kiowa Warriors have flown almost 500,000 hours in Afghanistan.
“When you ask a soldier what they think about Army [helicopters] you will find out we have a great reputation,” said Maj. Gen. James Barclay III, head of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala. “We bring a lot to the warfighter. But we have to continue to do that.” With challenges ahead, Army helicopter aviation is working to achieve that goal.