Current procurement and acquisition plans have left the US Army’s helicopter fleet in an increasingly untenable position, Breaking Defence reports.
Due to a lack of funding and next-generation rotary-wing aircraft, the US Army helicopter fleet is becoming increasingly outdated.
One helicopter, the CH-47 Chinook, was introduced into the fleet during the Vietnam War and is not set to be retired until 2065.
“It’s going to be a 100-year aircraft because we don’t have a replacement,” Maj. Gen. Michael Lundy said to the Association of the US Army.
The other aircraft in the fleet — thousands of Apaches and Black Hawks — are newer than the Chinook. But they still face costly upgrades for engines, electronics, and critically needed sensors that would help make flying safer during adverse weather conditions.
The Army estimates that approximately 600 Americans died in the wars in Afghanistan due to helicopter crashes arising from sand, snow, or dust kicked up by the vehicle’s own rotors. This “brownout” and a lack of proper sensors leads to pilots becoming disorientated and crashing their helicopters. The number of deaths caused by such crashes surpassed the number of Americans killed in helicopters by enemy actions.
Currently, a host of aviation companies are developing prototypes for the Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) helicopter. The Army is scheduled to make a decision on which FVL it will develop by 2017. But production is not scheduled to begin for the FVL until 2030 and there won’t be a full brigade of the aircraft until 2037.
This delay in procurement leaves the Army with a potentially serious operational hole. The helicopter fleet will continue to age without a viable replacement readily available.
One solution to the problem is buried within the Army’s proposed budget for the 2016 fiscal year. The Army has requested $US473 million more over the 2015 budget to modernize the helicopter fleet as part of its Aviation Restructure Initiative (ARI). However,accordingto Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. of Breaking Defence, this solution is likely “dead on arrival.”
The ARI is incredibly unpopular. Aside from requesting additional funding, the Army also wants to strip the Army National Guard of all of its AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. The Guard’s Apaches would replace the Army’s own OH-58 Kiowas which, having entered service in 1968, are on the chopping block to lower overall costs.
This complex juggling act of reshuffling helicopters and requesting extra funding is unlikely to be accepted by Congress. But if the ARI does not pass, then the Army will continue to be stuck with an ageing helicopter fleet without the necessary funds to modernize its decades-old vehicles until the next-generation of helicopters is ready to take to the skies.
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