New Delhi, January 12, 2019: History is repeating itself for U.S. Army aviators. Forty years ago a new generation of helicopters debuted, marking a shift from counter-insurgency operations in Indochina to preparations for great-power conflict in Europe. Today, a similar change is unfolding as the global war on terror winds down and national strategy turns to a focus on “near-peer” threats–meaning Russia and China.
The Army says it needs to replace many of those Cold War helicopters if it is to play its part in implementing the new strategy. Brigadier General Walter Rugen, the officer leading Army efforts to define a way forward for its aviation branch, told me this week that “we’re at the same inflection point we were at coming out of Vietnam.” Rugen’s job consists mainly of building a consensus within the Army for what modernization initiatives should come first, and then framing a plan that can survive annual budget fights inside and outside the service.
After lengthy debate, the aviation consensus seems to have coalesced behind five priorities. First, the Army needs to replace scout (“armed reconnaissance”) helicopters that it retired in 2017—rotorcraft that can stealthily penetrate contested air space in wartime to collect tactical intelligence. The service is seeking proposals from industry for a light, agile helicopter that it calls the Future Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft.
Second, the Army needs to develop a successor for its 2,000 Black Hawk air assault helicopters, which are used to accomplish a diverse array of missions on the modern battlefield. Black Hawks have operated well in Southwest Asia, but they will be challenged to function effectively in future combat against near-peer foes, so the Army wants a replacement ready to enter service at the end of the 2020s.
Third, the Army wants to assign the dirtiest, most dangerous air missions of tomorrow to unmanned aerial systems, so it has begun a technology demonstration effort to see what might be feasible in the remotely-piloted arena. This is mostly about developing next-generation drones, but it also involves making future helicopters “optionally manned” so that commanders don’t have to send pilots on what might be suicide missions.
Fourth, the Army needs to upgrade the capability of its other two big rotorcraft assets, the Apache tank-killer and the Chinook heavy-lift troop carrier. A new variant of Apache is being introduced that will keep it relevant and resilient until mid-century, thus there is no great sense of urgency about replacing it. The same applies to Chinook as long as it receives so-called “Block II” improvements to assure adequate performance going forward (without Block II, the Army will lose the ability to lift its next-generation jeep) according to forbes.com.
Finally, but crucially important, the Army needs to continue funding an Improved Turbine Engine Program to assure adequate lifting power for the new scout and legacy rotorcraft that will remain in the fleet for decades to come. Gen. Rugen told me that although the Army is seeking a successor to Black Hawk, some of those helicopters will likely remain in the force until 2050, and planners can’t simply let their capabilities languish. An engine that increases shaft horsepower by 50% to extend range, endurance and lifting power is essential to successfully performing missions in the 2020s and 2030s.
These are just the main features of an Army aviation plan that has many moving pieces. Rugen spends much of his time consulting with other commands and other services to glean lessons that can be applied to the aviation roadmap. Nobody wants a repeat of the Comanche effort, which spent approximately $12 billion in pursuit of a new scout helicopter during the Clinton and Bush years, but ultimately failed to deliver a feasible, affordable solution.
Affordability bulks large in Army modernization plans, not just to build the new rotorcraft but to operate them. Rugen spends a lot of time thinking about sustainability, in particular the cost per flight hour of various modernization options. One approach currently favored for holding down costs is to offload functions such as targeting and intelligence gathering to drones or other systems, so the manned component of the fleet doesn’t become too burdened with expensive onboard equipment.
Another quality highly valued by planners is interoperability, meaning close cooperation between the Army’s various warfighting communities in accomplishing missions. Sometimes it will make more sense to accomplish aviation-related tasks such as suppression of hostile air defenses by seeking support from other branches, such as fires (artillery) and intelligence units. Making that concept work in a dynamic warfighting environment will require a more robust, resilient tactical network.
Army Aviation is certainly not lacking in technological options for the future. It is considering everything from robotics to artificial intelligence in its future concept of operations. But planners are acutely aware of the danger pilots might suffer from “task saturation,” and that is why they speak of “cognitive offloading” to assure that all the gee-whiz equipment aviators of tomorrow possess doesn’t overwhelm them.