For most Americans, summer is the season of fun – but in Washington DC, summer is the silly season of building budgets – that long and complicated annual process that involves budget review and resolution, constant hearings, and appropriations. In this season, tough questions get asked, priorities are clarified, threats and requirements are detailed, and, when finished, a more concrete understanding of programs and challenges is attained.
Of course, the Dept. of Defense as a whole, and each service, supporting agencies and the bureaucracy at large – receives the lion’s share of attention, probing and inquiry from Congress. And rightfully so. DoD has requested $715 billion dollars for Fiscal Year 22,[i] and given the threat posed by hostile entities around the globe and the wide spectrum of serious issues facing several costly, though essential, programs across the DoD enterprise, robust debate is necessary. As Congress continues its work on both defense appropriations and authorization, one key area that needs to be addressed more thoroughly concerns the status of several Army aviation programs.
Current Army and Army National Guard (ARNG) squadrons are equipped with a wide variety of platforms, almost all of which are rotary-wing aircraft – and primarily consist of the AH-64E, UH-60M, UH-72, and the CH-47F. Army aviation, and by extension, Army National Guard aviation, is fundamental in so many ways to the modern U.S. Army – from supporting special operations and Airborne infantry to battlefield reconnaissance and combat rescue to ground attack and close air support.
For these reasons, the Army and the ARNG simply cannot afford to suffer gaps in capability due to a lack of aircraft readiness. Nor can the Army or the ARNG afford extensive delays in delivery of new and upgraded aircraft or be afflicted by platforms that are not truly interoperable across a joint operating force. With that said, when it comes to the future of Army and ARNG aviation, there are significant warning signs that should concern Congress and drive them to examine in greater detail.
One of these concerns is the status of the UH-60 Victor program. The Army made a decision to modernize a large portion of the ARNG UH-60 fleet in 2014. The program to do this was designated as the UH-60V and provided significant upgrades to the existing UH-60A/L fleets. The most notable upgrade is the replacement of analog cockpits with more reliable and accurate digitized "glass" cockpit displays, which allow for greater interoperability between similar aviation platforms. The program is projected to end in 2037, with initial delivery schedules targeting up to 48 aircraft per year for a total of 760 aircraft.[ii]
However, October of 2020 saw the completion of only the first UH-60V aircraft[iii] – and as of March of this year, only two aircraft have been produced. Delivery to the field of Victor helicopters is pending completion of initial operational test and evaluation (IOTE). This essential step can't be ignored and directly relates to safety and mission readiness. The Army indicated that software issues have been tricky to work through and account for most of the production and delivery delays.[iv]
While it is not uncommon for technical issues to delay DoD programs, accepting unreasonable delays should never be accepted as “business as usual,” especially when such delays affect national security. Therefore, Congress should be concerned that it has taken several years to deliver conversions of 30-plus year old legacy Blackhawk aircraft to the service in low single digit numbers. This is especially alarming given the amount of money Congress appropriated over the last five years to this program, which now sits at just under a billion dollars. The cost per unit of the UH-60V hovers around $13 million. Frankly, this cost is not much less than a brand new UH-60M, which the Army has fielded in nearly all of its combat units.
There are real operational readiness and capability concerns as a result of this slow progress – especially given that by the time all UH-60V models are completed (at least based on the current timeline forecasts), the Army will likely be flying new generation aircraft as part of the Future Vertical Lift program. Moreover, given that the ARNG will be the primary user of the UH-60V, and because of program delays, this puts a real question mark on ARNG helicopter operations, which include everything from combat operations and training, to disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, to counter-narcotics support. In turn, this negatively affects the entire U.S. Army aviation capability, given the ARNG is an essential component of the overall Army force structure.
Another aviation topic – which was recently raised in a June 15th Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Army Modernization – is the future of the AH-64 helicopter. Concerns were raised in the hearing about reports on demobilization of Apaches that still have considerable service life remaining on the airframes. While committee members and witnesses worked to sort out the details on this subject, a key point stands unchallenged by all: premature destruction of critical military assets during a time of high budget pressures where the search for cost savings for capability is paramount should be a real warning flag for military commanders, congress, and taxpayers. This is especially true when many attack units are currently well below the required number of aircraft for mission readiness and combat operations.
As the Army moves steadily forward on Future Vertical Lift – an expensive program focused on developing the service’s next-generation rotary-wing fleet and which the Army lists as one of its top six modernization priorities[v] – the spotlight on all Army and ARNG aviation programs will continue to be bright. With everything facing the nation from both budgetary and threat perspectives (and likely to pose challenges for the next several years), we cannot afford to throw good money after bad. For too long now, major taxpayer funds have been spent on pricey programs – from ships to aircraft to software systems – that ended up not performing as they were initially promised. Some of these programs – such as the Littoral Combat Ship – are already being canceled after only a few years of service.
Instead, we must place a top priority on ensuring that promises made by the services and contractors are kept, particularly when real operational consequences hang in the balance. This requires keen oversight of services and contractors. We can no longer afford to let program deficiencies resolve themselves like time past. Congress has the power of the purse to compel significant improvements in defense acquisition processes and program execution. Certainly, there should always be room for flexibility and realistic accommodation on programs, but only when absolutely necessary, such as during situations like COVID-19. The ramifications of major delays in asset delivery or receiving marginal capability for relatively high cost must not go unaddressed and cannot continue. At the very least, policy-makers need to be forthright and transparent about the status of their programs.
Simply put, as Congress moves forth on FY22 defense appropriations, these key Army aviation questions require very clear answers.
Kent Johnson, a former F-15E Strike Eagle and A-10 Warthog fighter pilot, is a former political-military adviser on the staff of the Secretary of the Air Force (International Affairs) and senior adviser to the Royal Air Force think tank. Currently, Kent is a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and Past Assistant to the Court of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots. He is a political science adjunct (on sabbatical) at North Central Texas College specializing in defense studies