US Army aviation is preparing for a sweeping restructuring that rivals in scope the introduction of the air mobility concept in 1960

The US Army's aviation shake-up comes four-and-a-half years after it began overhauling its organisation and equipment used for land warfare, a time gap that army leaders are now rushing to close. Fundamentally, army aviation has chosen to shift its strategic emphasis to function less as a standalone attack force and more as a supporting adjunct to the infantry and armoured units on the ground. Thus, the stand-off role of the now-terminated Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche is giving way to a more agile force that is able to provide direct support to ground forces in almost any situation.

According to Gen Richard Cody, the army's deputy chief of staff for operations, what is changing is "the army's propensity to fight more joint operations with helicopters more in the close fight supporting our ground manoeuvre forces for killing, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition".

A primarily medium-lift and heavylift force is to be balanced by a new force of light helicopters serving as gunships, and small transports. Onboard defensive systems designed to defeat the most sophisticated missile threats will be supplemented by countermeasures against the most common weapons of guerrilla warfare - the primitive heat-seeking missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and even small arms that have shot down nine army helicopters in Iraq in recent months.

Funding advantage

Unlike at least seven antecedents, the current plan has the advantage of an actual source of funding - the $14.6 billion earmarked for the RAH-66 Comanche project. It may also have the advantage of active support from army chief of staff Gen Peter Schoomaker, who personally unveiled the proposal at a press conference on 1 March.

Several significant schedule and budget details have not been revealed. The revitalisation only started to take shape in the weeks after the Comanche was cancelled.

Claude Bolton, assistant secretary of the army for acquisition, indicates that the army plans to begin reassigning available funds as soon as the fiscal year 2005 budget. The plan hinges on a promise by the Office of the Secretary of Defense to keep the Comanche's five-year budget within army aviation. "They said: 'You got it'," says Bolton.

Timing could become a critical factor, and army aviation is now scrambling to assemble the details of the restructuring and allocate the Comanche's funding before it is consumed. The army hopes to have the funds earmarked for its new priorities before a steady tide of unpaid operational bills from continuing operations in Iraq come next January, when the Bush administration, if re-elected, plans to submit a request for a massive budget supplement.

In the nearer term, army aviation is also faced with a $1.6 billion bill to quickly repair and overhaul aircraft returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Several senior industry officials say another short-term complication could be the matter of settling the termination fee for the Comanche.

Bolton has scoffed at reported estimates of a termination fee of around $2-4 billion, saying the correct figure should fall between $450-600 million. But senior industry officials close to the programme say it is certain the termination fee will consume at least the rest of the Comanche's $800 million FY2004 budget and all of the $1.2 billion request for FY2005. The final cost is not expected to be decided in a courtroom for several years, perhaps keeping some of those funds in limbo.

"We want to do this as quickly as we can," says Cody. "It will be based upon the requirements, and the documentation that we send to the acquisition executive and then how quickly industry can react to build these new airframes for us to bridge this gap."

Shopping list

The army has compiled an ambitious shopping list, including 796 new-build aircraft and upgrades for 1,400 more over the next seven years. By comparison, the army's previous two-year spending plan called for the purchase of just 25 new aircraft - all Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks.

The revitalisation is to include three new-starts, including 303 off-the-shelf light utility helicopters and a new force of fixed-wing intra-theatre transports to replace an ageing fleet of about 43 Shorts C-23 Sherpas. The army has listed a need for 25 transports, but one industry observer considers that number a placeholder until a detailed plan is approved. An early draft of a new army analysis has called for a fleet of more than 120 fixed-wing aircraft.

A requirement for 368 armed reconnaissance helicopters (ARH) is widely viewed among industry observers as a thinly disguised plan to buy more MD Helicopters MH/AH-6 Little Birds. Schoomaker, a former chief of US Special Operations Command, which operates a fleet of about 40 Little Birds, is said to be a strong proponent of the single-engined aircraft. One industry observer says the idea is also aligned with Schoomaker's emphasis on improving commonality of resources between special forces and conventional units.

"It is believed that the ARH is going to be the Little Bird, or a Little Bird-like aircraft," says one senior industry executive.

A procurement programme for the ARH is expected to be launched this year, and industry officials expect to see a list of draft requirements within weeks. The ARH is needed to phase out the Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior fleet of 373 aircraft. Although less than 20 years old, the Kiowa Warriors were only introduced in the late 1980s to serve as an interim platform until the arrival of the Comanches. Despite the aircraft's limitations, lessons from the Iraq war have emphasised the advantage of using small aerial gunships like the Kiowa Warrior and Little Bird to support ground units.

The Comanche's stealth characteristics made it optimised to fly at night or in daylight in areas of the battlefield where the enemy was believed to lack low-level air defences, particularly heat-seeking missiles and small arms.

The current Little Bird fleet consists of the MH-6 troop transport and the AH-6 light gunship. In the latest MH-6M configuration, the aircraft has been upgraded to a six-bladed rotor and has new avionics. As the army's primary aerial light reconnaissance platform, its targeting and radar systems may need an upgrade. Although armed with a three-barrel cannon and seven-tube rocket launcher, the Little Birds have only a basic forward-looking infrared sensor (FLIR), and pilots are understood to rarely rely on it for targeting purposes.

The Little Bird is based on the single-engine McDonnell Douglas (formerly Hughes) 500 series aircraft. Dutch-owned MD Helicopters, which acquired Boeing's commercial helicopter business in 1999, is likely to be obliged by the army to pair up with a US integrator before a deal is signed.

Also high on the army's list is fully funding the Block 3 modernisation programme for the Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow. It hopes to upgrade the first 284 aircraft using a portion of the leftover Comanche funds, and the remaining 217 Longbows would be upgraded after the current spending plan runs out in 2011.

Budget plan

The army's requirement for an attack and reconnaissance fleet still stands at more than 1,200 units, one industry observer notes, which is far beyond the 501 Block 3 Apaches and 368 ARHs now being proposed. It is possible that the army will convert at least half of the Comanche armed reconnaissance requirement into an unmanned fleet. The budget plan after terminating Comanche included an increase of roughly $300 million for unmanned air vehicles.

Minus the Comanche, the plan has all the elements of a modernisation strategy that army aviation has been calling for since the mid-1990s. A requirement for a light utility helicopter fleet was defined in 1996, but never funded. Support for the Block 3 Apache upgrades had been gaining momentum, but funding had yet to materialise.

"What we needed to do was significant, and as we looked at our aviation budget over the years of the programme, about 40% of that budget for aviation was devoted to Comanche," says secretary of the US Army Les Brownlee.

In recent decades, the army has launched seven major reviews of its aviation branch, but has never fully implemented the recommendations of any of them. The most recent attempt to reform army aviation came four years ago. That plan was expected to reorganise the force into new multifunctional battalions, rather than brigades, and downsize to four types of helicopter - RAH-66s, AH-64Ds, UH-60s and Boeing CH-47 Chinooks. The 11 September terrorist attacks, however, forced the army to abandon the plan less than two years later.

The roots of army aviation's dilemma remained unchanged: how would army aviators keep pace with the transformation of the army's ground force that was already under way?

On 13 October 1999, the conceptual framework was first outlined for what is now two separate procurements - the Stryker combat vehicle and a new family of 20t networked vehicles called the Future Combat Systems (FCS).

"What we are after here is the capability to put that combat-capable brigade anywhere in the world in 96h," the then-army chief of staff Gen Eric Shinseki said, addressing the 1999 Annual Meeting of the Association of the US Army.

Missing from Shinseki's speech was any reference to the future of the army's large force of attack, reconnaissance and utility helicopters. Only six months earlier, "Task Force Hawk" had painfully illustrated the limits of the army's ability to deploy its helicopters over even regional distances. A force of 24 AH-64A Apaches was called on to support the 78-day air campaign against Serbia, but required 1,700 support troops and four weeks to move from Germany to Albania. The unit's deployment orders were signed on 4 April, initial operational capability was achieved on 26 April, but the full task force was not available for action until 7 May. Even then, the threat of Serbia's low-level air defences and political wrangling prevented Task Force Hawk from joining the fight. Two aircraft were also lost in training accidents.

Four years later, deploying AH-64s in the build-up to the Iraq war had become slightly easier. Air transportability kits allowed the army to load Apaches on to Boeing C-17 Globemasters without needing to remove their rotor assemblies. The innovation reduced reinstallation and flight-check timelines from at least 24h hours to 2h. Some Apaches were also fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks, adding 50min of flight time.

Aviation deployment

Even so, today's aviation branch is unlikely to approach the envisioned deployability of an FCS force that should become available by 2010. In the months before the latest army aviation transformation programme was announced, it was possible to speculate that the army's ground force would soon be able to outpace the deployment of army aviation. This transformation applies not only to equipment, but also to force structure.

"Today we have seven different formations in army aviation depending upon what division, what corps or what National Guard division you're in," says Cody. The army is reorganising its aviation brigades into three standard, multifunctional packages - heavy division, light division and national guard division.

The heavy and light divisions will each be organised into five battalions, a headquarters company and an extended-range UAV company, with the only difference being the aircraft selected for two attack battalions assigned to aviation brigades in both categories. Heavy divisions will include a force of 48 AH-64s, while light divisions will have 60 OH-58 Kiowa Warriors (later ARHs). In both types of division, there will be 38 UH-60 Black Hawks, 12 CH-47s and 12 HH-60 Jayhawk aeromedical evacuation aircraft. Meanwhile, guard divisions will start with the same number of utility and medevac aircraft, plus 16 AH-64s and 24 OH-58s.

By comparison, the 3rd Infantry Division - a heavy unit - invaded Iraq last year with an aviation brigade equipped with only 18 Apaches, 16 Black Hawks and no organic heavy-lift helicopter or medevac unit.


Source: Flight International