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Army Helicopters: Piecemeal Modernization For Future War

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

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An AH-64 Apache gunship flies over Warsaw.

ARLINGTON: US Army helicopters can penetrate Russian-style anti-aircraft defenses, service leaders say, but many aircrew are likely to die trying without new technologies, upgrades that the Army can only afford for part of the force. That mismatch between military demand and budgetary supply may force an end to 14 years organizing and modernizing all Combat Aviation Brigades to a single common standard. Instead, the aviation branch is now studying creating a variety of specialized units, only some of which might get tech like cockpit automation, improved turbine engines, and active protection against incoming missiles.

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Maj. Gen. William Gayler

“Every time someone says, ‘hey, aviation is not going to play in the future battlefield because of IADS (integrated air defense systems),’ it is completely and utterly false,” the head of the Army’s aviation center at Fort Rucker, Maj. Gen. William Gayler, told the Association of the US Army last week. “It’s convenient, though, to say, ‘you’re not going to operate, so let’s look to take money from you'” – especially since aviation is the Army’s most expensive branch. But the Army can’t afford to cede the airspace to the enemy, he said, especially since the new Multi-Domain Battle concept emphasizes breaking down complex defenses by attacking simultaneously from every direction: land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace.

So the question isn’t whether helicopters can operate in the face of Anti-Access/Area Denial defenses, but at what price. “If we have to go fight tonight, we have great capabilities, but we will take losses,” Gayler said bluntly. Reducing those casualties requires changes in training and organization – which are relatively inexpensive – but also new technology – which isn’t.

A UH-60 Black Hawk takes off after unloading soldiers during an air assault exercise in Germany.

Modernizing Retail, Not Wholesale

To be clear, no one’s talking about buying a new kind of helicopter, not at least until the all-service Future Vertical Lift project starts delivering sometime in the 2030s – if all goes well. Here and now, “the Army’s No. 1 need, in our vision, is a new armed reconnaissance helicopter” to replace the retired Kiowa, said Gayler, (but) we don’t have money until we buy out Apaches and we buy out Black Hawks.”

In other words, there’s no money to develop an all-new scout helicopter until the Army finishes modernizing its existing AH-64 gunships and UH-60 transports. Three Kiowa replacements have already been cancelled and the money plowed back into upgrading existing aircraft: the RAH-66 Comanche, ARH-70 Arapaho, and Armed Aerial Scout. Today, there are 2,135 Black Hawks alone, Gayler said, and the Army can only afford to replace or rebuild at most 50 a year.

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The cancelled RAH-66 Comanche

The problem is that if we insist on upgrading all helicopters to the same standard across the force, we’ll spend decades fielding technology that will be obsolete long before we’re done. “It will take us 40 years, (and) we will spend the last 37 years fielding obsolescence,” Gayler told the Association of the US Army last week. “By the time, we field anything the threat has already changed.”

Instead, he said, “we want to introduce a capability rapidly to solve a specific problem,” get it in the field ASAP to see how it works, and only then decide whether to buy it in bulk for the entire force. (What’s called open architecture design would make this much easier by allowing plug-and-play upgrades instead of ripping old stuff out each time). Many capabilities may never get fielded Army-wide – which means accepting different units will have different equipment.

“We have to change our aversion to mixed fleets,” said Gayler. Today, for example, the Army is laboring mightily to upgrade its oldest Black Hawks, the UH-60As, to the more advanced UH-60L variant. But even when that’s finally done, some units will have different models, UH-60Ms and Vs. Despite all the effort to standardize, he said, we’ve always had a mix of models in practice.

“There is a complete myth out there that common must be better,” Gayler said. “How do we know? In the history of our nation, we’ve never had common fleets of equipment.”

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Croatian, Hungarian, and Polish troops fast-rope out of an American MH-47 (the Special Ops variant of the CH-47 Chinook).

Corps Aviation & Armored Cavalry

A force of interchangeable, “modular” brigades made some sense for Afghanistan and Iraq, where the military had to deploy fresh units to replace exhausted ones with as little disruption as possible, year after year after year. But building up identical brigades required shortchanging specialist capabilities required by higher headquarters. In counterinsurgency, an intensely local kind of conflict, the focus on smaller units mostly worked. In the sweeping maneuvers of a major war, however, the Army would need to empower its divisions and corps with their own aviation, artillery, and other assets.

“There’s analysis that goes into what of capabilities need to be resident in what types of divisions (and whether) we need a capability at an echelon above division, at corps, “Gayler said. “That study is ongoing and completely predecisional… but it may be determined that light (infantry) divisions need to look different from heavy (armored) divisions, which need to look different from air assault (the 101st Airborne) or joint forced entry divisions (the 82nd Airborne).”

“That would have implications on the number of Black Hawks, numbers of Chinooks (CH-47s), number of Apaches in each formation,” Gayler said. “They would be different and tailored for role and mission of the formation.”

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An OH-58 Kiowa inserts US troops near the inter-German border in a Cold War exercise.

One back-to-the-future option under study is reviving the Cold War Armored Cavalry Regiments (ACRs): brigade-size heavy units with their own “organic” infantry, tanks, artillery, and helicopters, designed to scout and fight ahead of the main force. Today’s Armored Brigade Combat Teams (ABCTs) include all three types of ground troops, but no aviation. Helicopters are a scarcer and more expensive asset with more intense demands for maintenance and fuel, which is why they are centralized in independent Combat Aviation Brigades – for now. (The Marines, by contrast, allocate not only helicopters but fighter jets to individual Marine Air-Ground Task Forces, though a MAGTF’s size and structure can vary widely).

Future brigades will need more kinds of capabilities in-house than they have today, because in an intense Multi-Domain Battle they are more likely to be cut off and unable to call for help from higher formations, said Maj. Gen Eric Wesley, commander of the Army’s Maneuver Center at Fort Benning. That’s why the Army is conducting experiments with ACR-like formations, he said, speaking to AUSA alongside Gayler.

“You would want that capability,” Gayler agreed, “(but) how many BCTs are we going to bring down to make that capability?” In a zero-sum budget environment, if you want to give more assets to some units, you have to take them from other units. What’s more, he argued, the logistical support helicopters require would overburden a ground combat brigade, slowing it down: “The reality is today you could not put an aviation formation in there and be maneuverable.”

“The capability you would certainly want to explore,” said Gayler. “We have some very tough decisions ahead if we decide to go that route.”

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A sprawling Forward Arming & Refueling Point (FARP) in Taji, Iraq.

Training & Technology

Some of the changes the Army needs to make are free, changes in tactic, techniques and procedures. One way to evade radar and anti-aircraft missiles is to fly so low your helicopter is hidden behind hills, woods, buildings, and other obstacles – a technique practiced constantly in the Cold War.

“Some of the studies that have been done that said that Army aviation would die the second that it pierced the outer edge of the A2/AD umbrella forgot the fact that there’s such a thing as terrain masking,” said Brig. Gen. Frank Tate, aviation director on the Army’s Pentagon staff. The Army must relearn “all the things that older aviators – like everybody at this table – grew up learning (about) speed and altitude,” he said. “Flying low, that was life, and that has become life again.”

“That’s a training burden,” Tate said. “To some degree it may be a sensor enhancement burden as well, to help enable aviators to fly safely at the kinds of speeds we want to fly.” In other words, new technology isn’t essential, but it sure could help.

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An American AH-64 Apache trains with a Czech Mi-24 Hind.

There are logistical changes that Army aviation needs to train on, too,Tate continued. In Afghanistan and Iraq, with little threat from enemy artillery and none from airstrikes, he said, “we had these 100,000 gallon FARPs (Forward Arming & Refueling Points) that sit in one place for months and years.” Up against the Russians, that’s a huge explosion waiting to happen.

“We’ve got to go back to what many of us grew up with, (small) highly mobile FARPs,” Tate said. It would be helpful, he added, to develop “unmanned FARP capabilities” – another new technology that’s not essential but is desirable.

To simplify logistics against enemies who can cut our supply lines, Army aviation also needs more compact smart weapons that let one helicopter kill more targets, Gayler said. It needs artificial intelligence in the cockpit, not to replace the pilot, but to perform routine tasks in low-threat areas – letting the crew rest on long flights deploying to the conflict zone, for example – and to assist the pilot in a crisis – say, helping detect terrain and enemy fire in time to dodge.

Aviation needs Active Protection Systems that can automatically detect and intercept incoming missiles, Gayler went on. And it needs more support from other branches of the Army, especially the artillery, whose current and future long-range rockets can destroy air defenses or – again, with new technology – fill the air with radar-blocking chaff or even launch miniaturized reconnaissance drones.

Of course, all these new technologies take money and time. With the budget process in shambles and Russian troops staging wargames near the Baltics, the Army may not have much of either – which is why it may have to modernize in whatever small increments it can get.

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