Sequestration threatens fatigued helicopter fleet

Army Aviation faces cutbacks in training, maintenance and funding that threaten the lives of aircrews and the troops they carry to the front lines and medevac out, according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno.

“They will go in there with a hell of a lot less capability,” Odierno said of the soldiers flying in Afghanistan and in future conflicts. “That means mistakes will be made. That means we will have accidents, or that means they will be more likely to be shot down by enemy fire.”

Army aviation will be hard hit by looming budget cuts on its aging and overworked rotary fleet, Odierno said in testimony to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees last week, and in a Brookings Institute forum.

A prime example of the Army’s need to upgrade its helicopter fleet after nearly 12 years of war is the Bell OH-58 Kiowa scout, which first went into service in 1969 and last underwent a retrofit in 1990. Army aviation leaders have worked to replace it with the Armed Aerial Scout only to hit repeated road blocks.

Most recently, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the previous Army vice chief of staff, told aviation leaders in December to review the program.The delay served as a warning of what’s to come for most Army aviation modernization programs.

Odierno gave few specifics on the potential cutbacks for Army aviation, but Matt Bourke, a spokesman for Army acquisitions, said that under sequestration “all major modernization programs are at risk” in Army aviation. “And any programs in development are certainly at risk.”

One of those programs in the earliest stages of development in the Army’s next generation rotorcraft fleet called Future Vertical Lift. The program is still decades away, but it’s an ambitious program that Army aviation leaders hope will replace the workhorses of the Army fleet such as the Black Hawk and the Chinook.

Army aviation officials have set a goal of 2030 to field its Future Vertical Lift fleet. However, it will need funding to kick start the development program. Many inside the aviation community worry that funding will evaporate in order to pay for higher modernization priorities like the Army Network or the Ground Combat Vehicle.

In his warnings, Odierno was echoing the dire predictions of the other service chiefs on the effects of sequestration, the legislative process that will cut defense spending by more than $500 billion over 10 years starting March 1 if Congress and the White House fail to reach a deal on deficit reduction.

A major concern for Odierno was training, which he said would be curtailed across 80 percent of the Army.

“This will impact our units’ basic war-fighting skills, and induce shortfalls across critical specialties, including aviation, intelligence and engineering — and even our ability to recruit new soldiers into the Army,” Odierno told the House Armed Services Committee.

The critical battlefield edge that Army aviation provides is mobility, Odierno said, but the cutbacks envisioned could leave the Army in a position where “you lose your broader capability to conduct the type of operations that are necessary for us to be successful” through the inevitable loss of flying hours to meet tighter budgets.

One area that would be impacted is the Army’s Center for Aviation Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala., where the Army trains its pilots. The projection is that Rucker would lose about 500 student pilot slots and as much as 37,000 hours of aviation training time under sequester.

In his House testimony, Odierno said the potential loss of 500 student pilots would result in about 250 helicopters being grounded.

“That’s significant. That’s a lot of aircraft. That’s a lot of capability,” Odierno said. “Then what happens is you form this backlog, so it will take us longer to get aviators out of the system at Fort Rucker. That will cause us to have even more unmanned platforms because of this backlog.”

“At Fort Rucker, we have streamlined our ability there to train our pilots but we cannot take shortcuts because this is very serious business and we’ve got to make sure that they are trained to the quality necessary to be able be effective as they report to their units,” Odierno said.

Last November, when the thinking in the military still was that sequester was so unthinkable that it would never happen, Odierno ordered up a major review of all rotary programs to gauge how Army aviation measured up under the new national defense strategy.

“Most of the rotorcraft we have now (are) based on what we used to be doing,” Odierno told reporters. “We have to review that and figure out where does it fit and how does it fit. We’re going to do a pretty significant review of that.”

About the Author

Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.
  • BlackOwl18E

    Just another reason we should cut back funding for some of the super tech weapons that don’t work like the LCS and F-35B/F-35C and use it to make new versions of older systems so we can at least keep our basic operations going.

    In the constrained budget environment that is coming upon us we must decide if we are going to have new platforms and increased strain on service members or upgraded versions of old platforms with good training and living standards provided for our servicemen. Either way one side is going to suffer: the platforms or the life styles of our men and women in uniform. We cannot have both.

  • Anonymous

    They had $655 billion dollars in 2012. Deal with it.

  • Tribulationtime

    Old planes, Old helicopters, Old tanks, Old ships. Solution? Young draft warriors!!!. It´s cheaper and it free wide range of billions for Defense Cías keep profits.

  • Lance

    Army can save funding for Helicopter by killing unwanted or needed crap like ICC GCV and stop having the army take the USAF’s drones from them. The jerk is just whining that he cant get his way the Pentagon gone from war center to baby zone with generals all wanting to save there pet projects.

    • SJE

      The Army is doing most of the work, and so has most of the wear and tear, most of the casualties, etc. Its not unreasonable to ask why the Army can’t get replacements for its 1969 technology when the AF and Navy are whining to update their 1980s technology.

  • Marcellus Hambrick

    Social programs will save us and they need the dollars more than the military. Everyone is listening except the Chinese.

  • Marcellus Hambrick
  • Dfens

    Yep, if those helicopters start falling out of the sky it will all be the fault of you damn taxpayers who won’t part with that damn cash you don’t deserve to have anyway. You didn’t earn that paycheck, the federal government did!

  • stephen russell

    & we have 5 carriers sitting in Norfolk NB, like its Dec 7 1941 again.
    Scary
    All due to budget hits.
    & all our forces suffer.

    • SJE

      RIGHT NOW, the army has choppers and equipment in need of upgrades and maintenance. There is a CURRENT need. By contrast, carriers are for force projection. Even with 5 in Norfolk, the USA already has overwhelming superiority in carriers. It also has numerous supply hubs and airbases, should the need arise. Where is the critical need for more carrier based force projection?. The first priority is protecting current US forces in theater. Equal priority: Chinese computer hacking.

  • oblat

    No doubt if it comes to a choice between the troops and defense contractors Odierno would shoot the troops in the head himself – thats how much he values his retirement job.

  • Chuck Mock

    More money to welfare, food stamps and other social programs will fix our money problems…. really. Our defense department should not take the brunt of our budget cuts. Our comander-in-chief needs to see a doctor about his rectal cranial inversion.

  • Musson

    Smaller, more effective force? Or, larger ill equiped and ill trained force.

    Take your pick.

  • Steve W

    You voted for Obama. Live with it

  • vietnamveteran

    http://www.defense.gov/contracts/

    Berger/Cummins J.V., Washington, D.C. (W912BU-11-D-0011); IAP Worldwide Services, Panama City, Fla. (W912BU-11-D-0012); and Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc., Fort Knox, Ky. (W912BU-11-D-0013); were awarded a $490,000,000 firm-fixed-price multiple-award-task-order contract. The award will provide for the necessary services to provide power plant and electrical services for contingency operations in Afghanistan.”

    Guess who is paying for this? Let’s put up and electrical grid for a population who still uses wood-fired stoves. It’s one half billion.

    China is operating a $5 Billion copper mine in Afcrapistan. Bribe to the Interior Minister of $25 Million worked.

    We borrow money from China, we print money, and we tax everyone, compounding debt that can never be paid, and this will be ruinous to all.

    The biggest Welfare Recipients in our nation are defense contractors.

  • Dfens

    Well, Mom, your son is being used as a human shield against well deserved defense cuts just like I and my family are. It doesn’t make it right, but I and my family are not going to be held hostage so that James McNereny and Bob Stevens can continue to pull down their multi-million dollar salaries while outsourcing much of our defense to foreign contractors. According to a story in Bloomburg, “Pentagon contracts plunged to $12.1 billion in January, a 67 percent decrease from December, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, as the military reined in spending in anticipation of the [10%] cuts that may be coming.” (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-02-19/pentagon-budget-stuck-in-last-century-as-warfare-changes.html) Just to give you a little perspective on the game that’s being played here.

  • SFP

    Old planes, Old helicopters, Old tanks, Old ships. Solution? Young draft warriors!!!. It´s cheaper and it free wide range of billions for Defense Cías keep profits.