When the Army and Air Force split to become separate military services after World War Two, the Air Force got almost all of the fixed-wing aircraft, and the Army got almost all of the helicopters. Today, 70 years later, the U.S. Army is the biggest operator of helicopters in the world, and every facet of its approach to conducting land warfare is shaped by the availability of vertical-lift assets.
However, once you have the world's biggest fleet of helicopters, you have to maintain it. That has become increasingly difficult in the 16 years of continuous fighting that followed the 9-11 attacks. Army helicopters have taken a beating in the hot, dusty combat environment of Southwest Asia. It is not uncommon when forward-deployed helicopters are sent to depots for repairs to find over a hundred pounds of sand and grit in the airframes, the engines, and the on-board electronics.
The grit can be removed and the equipment can be overhauled, but many years of intensive operations -- "high optempo" as they call it in the military -- eventually takes a toll. A fleet that was relatively young when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan has grown old, and thus needs to be renewed by either buying new helicopters or remanufacturing old ones to a like-new condition.
But that requires money, and money for replacing aging equipment was hard to come by during the Obama years -- especially for the Army. Congress capped military spending in 2011 for ten years, and while war-related expenses were left outside the caps, money for modernizing combat fleets was not. Since readiness and personnel costs always have to be funded first, the cumulative effect of capping outlays was to starve modernization accounts of the funding needed to keep up.
The Obama administration's last annual budget request for the Army was especially hard on aviation, requesting a mere $3.6 billion for the procurement of new rotorcraft. That is about eight hours’ worth of federal spending for a year to modernize the world's biggest helicopter fleet. It wasn't anywhere near enough for a military service that had already decided it had to retire its venerable Kiowa armed recon ("scout") helicopters but couldn't afford to buy a replacement.
What the Army decided to do instead was equip one of its three other core combat airframes, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, to serve as an interim scout helicopter. The idea made a certain amount of sense because the Apache is rugged and highly survivable, but the plan precipitated a political fight as the Army sought to transfer the National Guard's Apaches into the active force so that it had enough of the helicopters to meet all of its combat requirements.
These are the sorts of internecine struggles that break out when an organization is chronically under-funded. Fortunately for the Army, Congress has moved in its just-completed budget agreement for the rest of the 2017 fiscal year to substantially increase the money available to Army Aviation for modernization. The Obama request was increased by nearly a billion dollars in the congressional spending bill approved by both chambers, and with additional funding included in the supplemental war account, money for new helicopters will now total $5.2 billion.
That will allow the Army to keep multiyear agreements on track to gradually modernize all three of its core aviation assets -- the Apache, the Black Hawk multi-role utility helicopter, and the Chinook heavy-lift helicopter. For instance, the budget agreement reached late Sunday night will provide $1.2 billion in 2017 to buy 62 Black Hawk helicopters in the latest UH-60M configuration.
So that's the good news. The bad news is that the Army has over 2,000 Black Hawks in its fleet, so it would take a long, long time to fully modernize that fleet at current rates of production. The worse news is that even with congressional increases to the Obama request, the funding available to the Army this year for buying aviation assets is well below the $5.9 billion it received in 2016 and no more than the $5.2 billion it got in 2015.
These are the funding levels that brought the Army to a point where it decided it had to retire the Kiowa without buying a dedicated replacement. If the world's premier land-warfare organization stays on this vector much longer, it won't be premier anymore. In fact there is already plenty of evidence the Army has begun to fall behind potential adversaries in a range of weaponry.
For instance, other countries are equipping their combat systems with so-called active-protection systems that intercept incoming missiles, and the Army should be doing the same -- not just its armored vehicles, but its rotorcraft too. It also needs a new engine for its medium-lift helicopters -- Apache and Black Hawk -- because those airframes have been gaining weight at the rate of 70-100 pounds per year since they debuted during the Cold War, so now they are under-powered.
The Army has an effort called the Improved Turbine Engine Program to develop a more powerful, efficient engine, but whether it can be kept on track in the current, unpredictable budget environment is anyone's guess. The same is true of an ambitious effort to replace all three of the Army's top combat helicopters with a family of airframes sharing common parts and systems called the Future Vertical Lift program. That effort needs to ramp up fairly fast to start delivering next-generation airframes in the 2030s.
If it doesn't, the U.S. Army will be flying helicopters designed during the Cold War into the second half of the current century. Service leaders already are projecting that the Chinook helicopter could remain in service for a full century. That isn't all bad -- it's still one of the fastest rotorcraft in the world, and every facet of the airframe has been gradually upgraded over time. Still, it's a bit hard to believe the Army can prevail against 21st Century adversaries with helicopters that first saw service during the Reagan years.
The Army needs to develop new helicopters while keeping its current fleet airworthy and up to date. But that will require more than a few hours of federal spending per year.
The Apache and Chinook are built by Boeing. The Black Hawk is built by Lockheed Martin. Pratt& Whitney is on a team competing for the improved turbine engine. All of these companies contribute to my think tank; Lockheed is a consulting client.