Rotor & Wing International

Fiscal Reality Challenges Ambitious US Army Aircraft Modernization Plan

Associate Editor and Defense Analyst Pat Host examines helicopter programs in the U.S. government.

The U.S. Army’s program executive officer (PEO) for aviation, Brig. Gen. Bob Marion, told fellow Army aviation practitioners at the Army Aviation Assn. of America conference April 30 about the service’s modernization plan.

he U.S. Army’s program executive officer (PEO) for aviation, Brig. Gen. Bob Marion, told fellow Army aviation practitioners at the Army Aviation Assn. of America conference April 30 about the service’s modernization plan.

In the short term, Marion talked about fielding Version 4 AH-64 Apaches and upgraded UH-60 Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks.

In the midterm, Marion said the Army wanted Version 6 Apaches, Victor-model Black Hawks with digitized cockpits, Block II F-model Chinooks, the advanced rotorcraft engine to be fielded under the Integrated Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) and a program to help helicopter pilots better survive brownout conditions (called Degraded Visual Environment: Brownout Rotorcraft Enhancement System, or DVE: BORES.)

In the long term, the Army wants its next generation of rotorcraft through the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstrator and Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programs.

“Think about ... what a ramp looks like today and what a ramp can look like in five years if we do our jobs and do them well,” Marion said.

The problem, Marion said, is that analysts tell him the Army just doesn’t have funds to execute these modernization efforts simultaneously and it won’t get that money any time soon.

Lexington Institute think tank COO Loren Thompson said the Army has been de-prioritized under President Barack Obama. Obama’s military spending priorities emphasize readiness over modernization, Thompson said. When it comes to modernization, the White House prioritizes air and sea power over ground forces.

While aviation procurement fell $2.3 billion in the fiscal 2017 budget request, aviation remained a modernization priority and the largest proportional element of the Army’s procurement spending. To accomplish Marion’s ambitious modernization plan, Thompson said, the Army simply needs more money for modernization as it has very limited funding (compared to the Air Force and Navy) for buying new technology.

“It seems unlikely the Army will find the money to get much beyond modified Black Hawks, Chinooks and Apaches over the next 20 years,” Thompson said May 5.

He added that whether the Army will get additional modernization funding is a political question. If the U.S. continues Obama’s priorities with fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton as president, he said, then the Army is probably stuck with the current level of modernization funding through the end of the decade.

The Army’s modernization issue is compounded by the fact it has been unable to obtain new aircraft due to failed procurement efforts. It has spent billions over the last 20 years on efforts that never took off, like Armed Aerial Scout and Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. The last successful Army aviation procurement was the Light Utility Helicopter in the mid-2000s that produced the UH-72 Lakota. Other than that, the last new aircraft procured by the Army was the Apache, which was first delivered to the service in 1984.

Good News, Bad News

Thompson said the Army’s inability to field new helicopter platforms is both good news and bad news. The good news is that current systems aren’t at risk of being defeated because they have proven to be “remarkably reliable and versatile,” stemming an urgency for new platforms. The bad news, he said, is that tight budgets often result in the deference of new aircraft procurement. Thompson said he believes it is “not clear at all” that FVL has legs, having just now made it into the budget after first being conceived in 2009.

Another industry analyst, Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners in Washington, echoed the thought about modernization money remaining scarce. In a May 8 email to investors, Callan said his core assumption was that there wouldn’t be major divergences from the Obama administration, but there would be nuances to understand.

Callan told R&WI these nuances could include additional modernization funding flowing into capabilities like electronic warfare, long-range strike artillery and some Army ground vehicle programs, as opposed to aviation. The next administration might focus more on countering Russia than in past years. The Obama-led Pentagon focused on China over the past few years with its “pivot to the Pacific.”

“One of the big things that’s changed in 2014 and 2015 has been the re-emergence of Russia as a military factor,” Callan said. “I just don’t believe that there is not going to be any sort of consideration ... that looks at what the Army needs and how it is going to do some of these new missions that just weren’t contemplated in 2014 and 2015.”

Factoring in these nuances, Callan said Army aviation modernization is not going to get an easy boost from lawmakers. He said military hawks will not get the big budgets in a Clinton administration that they would get under a Republican-controlled White House and Congress. Democrats generally prioritize domestic spending over military spending.

During a question-and-answer session later in the day April 30, Marion said the Army had a number of techniques it would use to keep all its modernization priorities on schedule. He said this includes an acquisition effort called earned value management, which the Defense Dept. said promotes an environment in which contract execution data is shared between project personnel and government oversight staff and in which emerging problems are identified, pinpointed and acted upon as early as possible. Another, Marion said, is performing a Monte Carlo simulation of a master schedule that will determine the probability of achieving a certain goal. Monte Carlo probability simulation is a technique used to understand risk and uncertainty in financial, project management and other forecasting models.

Aside from the program techniques Marion described, Thompson said, there is no better way to keep modernization programs on track than proper funding from one year to the next. That is essential “if you want to get the most efficient results from your suppliers,” he observed. “When you say in 2016 that aviation is a priority, then you slash it in 2017, that is a prescription for

Callan said the Army has to be more realistic with its modernization plan. He disagreed with the emphasis on modernizing rotary-wing aircraft, as a potential European conflict with Russia would be a much more stressing environment than the permissive threat environment Army helicopters enjoyed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Rotary wing is not going to be the way,” Callan said. “It’s part of it, but it’s not the way that you’re going to resolve some of the capabilities that the Russians have been able to demonstrate in Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, Syria.” R&WI