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Sequestration threatens fatigued helicopter fleet

by Richard Sisk on February 19, 2013

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.”

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