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Army aviation leaders conduct delicate balancing act

Jan. 23, 2014 - 09:20AM   |  
Scout Role: US Army leaders expect Apaches to be part of the mix of platforms performing the aerial scout mission.
Scout Role: US Army leaders expect Apaches to be part of the mix of platforms performing the aerial scout mission. (US Army)
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WASHINGTON — Leaders in the Army say they can meet “about 80 percent” of the aerial scout mission over the next several years by using a mix of Apache helicopters teamed with a variety of unmanned aircraft, while retiring the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, which has traditionally performed that role.

In 2010, the service conducted an analysis of alternatives that looked at options for the scout mission and found the best choice to be a mix of AH-64E Apache helicopters, teamed with unmanned systems.

But at the time, “we didn’t have enough money to fund all the AH-64s necessary” to meet requirements, said Maj. Gen. Kevin Mangum, commanding general of the US Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker, Ala., told the audience at the Association of the United States Army symposium on Jan. 14.

Now that the Army is being forced to make some hard decisions as its budgets flatten and force structure constricts, Mangum said, “we have the opportunity to get to that mix and repackage the 698 AH-64s, teaming them up with the Shadow and Grey Eagle [UAVs] to meet about 80 percent of that armed aerial scout requirement.”

“The scout mission is still valid,” said Maj. Gen. William Crosby, who wraps up his five years as the Army’s Program Executive Officer Aviation at the end of this month. “Unfortunately, sometimes what we do is tie a mission to a platform, but we’ve been doing that mission for a long time with the Kiowa.”

The Army scuttled its Armed Aerial Scout program in 2013, after enlisting the defense industry in a costly development program that eventually fell out of favor with service leaders.

In December, Defense News reported that Army leaders are considering scrapping the entire fleet of Bell Helicopter OH-58 Kiowa Warriors, while pulling the National Guard’s Boeing AH-64 Apaches into the active-duty force to fill the scout helicopter role.

Crosby echoed Mangum’s contention that the Army has for years wanted Apache to fill the scout mission but couldn’t afford it.

“So thinking in those terms, if we’re going to come down in strength and size, we certainly don’t want to part with any new Apaches, so why not use them in a scout role?” he said.

The Army’s thinking has changed regarding what platform will fill the role. The service decided to build the Comanche heli­copter in the early 1990s to take over from the Kiowa instead of using the Apache, but canceled the Comanche in 2004.

What hasn’t changed is the priority aviators place on science and technology (S&T) development. Especially now with constrained budgets, leaders are trying to save as much S&T funding as possible

“Army leadership ... has held fast to keeping investment in science and technology,” said Mary Miller, deputy assistant secretary of research and technology, during a panel at the symposium. “That’s why it’s so critical that we do the right things and we have industry [involved] as we go along.”

Crosby said much the same in his final briefing with reporters before his Jan. 14 retirement.

“The hardest funds to defend in this environment are S&T, because we want gratification now,” he said. “When you reduce budgets there’s got to be a balance between sustainment, modernization and S&T.”

Miller underscored the importance of keeping the research and development funding flowing, telling the audience, “We’re in this kind of hiatus period. We’re going to come out in about five years, and we need to be ready to push things into position to become very solid programs of record.”

When it comes to the Army’s big planned aviation acquisition program, the Future Vertical Lift initiative, which is expected to replace the Apache and the Black Hawk in the mid-2030s, Miller said the Army has “waited and waited and waited” to buy new aircraft, but “we’re getting to a point where we can’t just extend the platforms we have if we want to have this extended range and this incredibly increased speed.”

It’s expected that two bidders will be selected to build prototypes for actual flight-testing to begin in 2017.

Making the program a success is critical for the Army not only for its future operations, but also to keep the industrial base humming, Crosby said.

“Industry has backed us on this program,” he said, and it’s critical that the service and industry work together to make it happen.

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