Magazine article National Defense

Spending on Army Aviation Rotorcraft to Start Downhill Slide

Magazine article National Defense

Spending on Army Aviation Rotorcraft to Start Downhill Slide

Article excerpt

After peaking in 2013, funding for Army aviation has begun a gradual descent that may last decades, according to analysts.

It remains to be seen whether the Army and its aging, yet critically important, rotorcraft fleets can stick the landing.

Two of the Army's major rotorcraft procurement and modernization programs took major hits so the Pentagon could find $13.7 billion in savings over the next five years. Every Army aircraft procurement program lost funding going into fiscal year 2014, and none of those calculations factor in the possibility of sequestration that annually could remove another $40 billion to $50 billion from the Pentagon's budget for a decade.

The cuts seemingly fly in the face of dire modernization needs that led some industry watchers to predict the service would keep its aviation budget aloft at least through 2018, which marks the end of the military's current five-year budgeting cycle.

The Army's rotorcraft are used almost continuously and are in need of repairs and upgrades: Many were considered old before a decade of war, and no other technology can replace them, according to an August 2012 report by The Teal Group, a Washington, D.C.-based industry analysis firm. Richard Aboulafia, Teal's vice president of analysis, stands by his assertions that while global spending on military rotorcraft would plateau at 2013 levels and remain steady for five years, the Pentagon would begin to spend less on helicopters from then into the future.

"The drivers are quite strong: Aging, worn-out fleets and the great importance of force mobility for almost every conceivable military mission," he wrote. "However, the U.S. military market looks set to ramp down fast after that peak."

The United States purchases more military rotorcraft than any other country and will remain atop the heap. But Army aviation could take a bacicseat to more pressing line items, once the immediate necessity of rotorcraft dissipates in tandem with the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration plans to carve $1.3 billion over five years from a program designed to rebuild and upgrade the Apache attack helicopter. It also reduced procurement of the UH-72 light utility helicopter by $400 million. The Army's total aircraft procurement budget for fiscal year 2014 is down $800 million from a $5.8 billion peak in the current fiscal year.

Paradoxically, rotorcraft occupy an ever more important role because as forces shrink, those troops need to be more mobile to cover the same amount of ground, the report said. A smaller Army will increasingly rely on its helicopters to transport troops and equipment, and provide covering fire and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to ground forces.

For the many missions the U.S. military finds itself tackling--fighting wars, providing humanitarian relief, counterinsurgency--rotorcraft are not only critical, but they have no technological equivalent, the report said.

"Rotorcraft are essential ... unlike, for example, aircraft carriers or main battle tanks," Aboulafia wrote.

Army aviation officials recognize the importance of retaining a healthy helicopter fleet. None have backed down from a dual-pronged strategy to patch beat-up legacy aircraft and upgrade their systems while investing in research and development of a "revolutionary" vertical lift technology to be fielded by 2030.

"Our parallel strategy to sustain and modernize our fleet is paramount. Aggressively pursuing these two complementary lines of effort will allow us to develop the equipment and expertise to field revolutionary technologies in response to speed, range, payload and vertical-lift requirements," Army aviation chief Maj. Gen. Kevin Mangum wrote in the April edition of Army Aviation Magazine. "This same science and technology endeavor can and will enable us to make evolutionary changes to our current fleet to keep it up to date and capable until we bring future vertical lift to fruition. …

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