This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
U.S. Army aviation leadership has been strategically redistributing the $14.6 billion in Comanche funding among its various modernization programs since the helicopter was canceled in 2004. But the well is due to dry up soon, and the service is formulating a strategy to protect its resources.
"Army aviation has done very well," says Brig. Gen. William Crosby, program executive officer for aviation. Recognition of the Army's high operational tempo "keeps us pretty well funded, but the reality of budgets are coming down. We have to be frugal with our assessments."
The first step in creating a realistic picture of the future is complete. The Aviation Study II, chartered by Lt. Gen. J.D. Thurman, Army deputy chief of staff, concluded with chief of staff approval for the formation of a 12th combat aviation brigade, a reorganization of resources to come in the next 12-18 months. Exploration will also continue into the best way to integrate and deploy unmanned aerial systems in combat.
Moreover, $400 million aimed at improving training will help grow the body of student helicopter pilots at Ft. Rucker, Ala., to 1,400 from 1,200. The funds should also alleviate what aviation branch chief Maj. Gen. James Barclay calls a "training bubble." At one point, 800 students were waiting up to six months to transition into advanced aircraft. That "bubble" has been reduced by half, Barclay says. A fleet of new Apaches and Black Hawks will help eliminate the problem entirely by 2012.
Army aviation has not faced any funding shortfalls since the cancellation of Comanche. Funding for aviation has actually increased by 40%, according to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). But the good news is tempered by economic reality. "We don't know the future," Barclay says. "Most of us who have been doing this for 30 years realize you're just waiting on the next decision, the next [budget planning cycle]."
The GAO agrees, and recommends that the service incorporate some of that uncertainty into its 2010 Army Aviation Modernization Strategy, primarily through assessing the potential effect decreased funding might have and how the Army will deal with the constraints. The GAO also wants the Army to press ahead with the Joint Future Theater Lift program, which has stalled as the Air Force, which favors a short-takeoff aircraft, mulls its piece of the requirements.
The Army's current plan through 2010 includes upgrading existing systems, developing new ones and procuring commercially produced equipment and aircraft such as the Lakota UH-72A Light Utility Helicopter (LUH). The Army has committed to buying 345 EADS-built LUHs, 210 of which are destined for National Guard duty. Every LUH fielded, says Col. Neil Thurgood, the Army's Utility Helicopter program manager, frees up another Black Hawk to be sent into combat, where the Black Hawk is in high demand.
The Army may be able to parlay the early LUH success (86 aircraft have been delivered) into cost savings, as other services and even other countries add to the order book. Late last year, the Navy signed a $30-million contract for five Lakotas for the test pilot school at NAS Patuxent River, Md., and Thurgood says several countries have expressed interest in Foreign Military Sales of the aircraft.
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