Big Changes Ahead for Army Aviation?

The Army had industry partners propose an Armed Aerial Scout based on existing, in production helicopters recently to look for a replacement for its OH-58D Kiowa Warrior fleet. The results were not particularly impressive.

And so now, it seems Army Aviation may just get out of the armed scout business.

US Army leaders are considering scrapping its entire fleet of Bell Helicopter OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters, while pulling the National Guard’s Boeing AH-64 Apaches into the active-duty force to fill the scout helicopter role as the Army seeks to fulfill its longer-term requirement of a newly developed armed aerial scout, according to several Army and defense industry sources.

The plan also calls for giving active Black Hawk helicopters to the Guard, while taking half of the Guard’s Lakota fleet, using them as active-duty trainers and scrapping its Jet Rangers.

While a final decision has yet to be made, the industry sources had the impression that the deal was all but done.

This is a fairly huge realignment of the aviation master plan. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago the OH-58D was thought good enough that the 82nd Airborne’s organic attack helicopter battalion was composed solely of Kiowas.

And as the article notes, the National Guard isn’t going to be eager to give up its Apaches to the regular Army (and all those Guard units flying Apaches each have two Senators and at least one Representative who can be counted on to ask Big Army to justify itself in excruciating detail).

Further, if all attack helicopter capability is vested in the regular Army, where will the attack helicopter support for activated National Guard divisions come from?

The article also mentions retiring the TH-67 trainer (basically a Bell Jet Ranger 206) with UH-72A Lakotas again stolen from the Guard and Reserves. Frankly, I’m not sure how much money that would save. Ordinarily, necking down the total number of types of aircraft flown is a money saving measure. But the UH-72, while cheap to fly for its mission, is still going to have much higher operating costs than the TH-67.

How the sequester is crippling the Army

As a dyed-in-the-wool fiscal conservative, we fully support the sequester. A line in the sand must be drawn against the ever increasing levels of federal spending. And if that impacts the budget of the armed forces, so be it. Even in a world with multiple and complex security challenges, the stupendous levels of federal debt are our greatest national security threat.

But the problems the sequester foists upon the services are real, and are having real, immediate impacts upon the services.

The actual monetary cuts the sequester imposes on the services are fairly modest. Under FY13 (last year) the main cause of pain was that the full dollar amount of savings had to be realized in only half the fiscal year.  The Obama administration fully expected a deal to avoid the cuts to be inked, and so steadfastly prohibited DoD and the services from even planning for the possibility of the cuts until the very last moment.  The way monies are allocated to the DoD meant that most funds for the FY were already allocated or obligated. In short, the only places it was even possible to make any cuts were in Operations and Maintenance (O&M) and Personnel funds. Some O&M funds simply had to be spent, merely to continue operations (like, say, Afghanistan) already underway. So the training budget for units not tagged to deploy were slashed.

And the passage of a Continuing Resolution, while providing somewhat reasonable levels of funding for the Army, is still disastrous in the long term. Why? Because the CR is just that, a continuation of previous funding authority. In effect, the Army cannot move funding levels from one account to another, and are locked into the spending priorities set well over three years ago.

I’m not the only one who sees things this way:

When I first joined the military the United States Army alone had some 780,000 troops in 18 divisions. It was near the end of the Cold War, the inter-German border still represented a very real potential combat zone and — if one was looking only at the numbers — this was probably about the high-point of the “peacetime” Army. We had the manpower we needed. The “Big Five” combat systems were coming into the field* and most of the detritus from the post-Vietnam period had been flushed from the system. Plus, in the past several years the Army had well and truly taken to the philosophy of honest and hard free-for-all training as a means of evening the gap by developing quality whereas our potential opponents had the quantity. This was best exemplified by the National Training Center (in the Mojave Desert of California) and the Combat Training Center at Hohenfels, Germany.

We trained hard and in all environments across the planet, and at any given moment we had at least a dozen “combat ready” divisions. (A division was, at that time, anywhere from 17-23,000 men.) And because good equipment and hard training costs money, it cost a lot of money. But in the wake of nearly perpetual poor performances of the US Army in the first battles of every war, our late-70s leadership decided “Never Again.” American units would train to the highest levels, with exacting but realistic standards, and we would do it so comprehensively that we would win, the first time, every time. In the process we would be saving innumerable lives, not only our own, but all sides because we would be able to fight so fast that the wars would be shorter. Only when a unit was fully trained would it be certified as “combat ready,” and that status would only last so long before it had to be trained again.

According to the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, as of yesterday, the entire US Army currently has only two combat brigades ready for combat.

Why? Well, we are not that much smaller than we were a few months or years ago. Though the drawdown has begun, it is only just starting and it should last four years. Oh, wait, that was the plan… until yesterday. Now we are cutting 80,000 in just two years. Perfect. (Hyperlinks in original)

You’ve probably seen where the Army Chief of Staff announced that only two Brigade Combat Teams are fully trained right now.

WASHINGTON, Oct 21 (Reuters) – Two years of budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty have forced the U.S. Army to greatly curtail spending on training, leaving it with only two combat brigades fully prepared to go to war, the Army’s top officer said on Monday.
“Right now, we have in the Army two brigades that are trained. That’s it. Two,” General Ray Odierno told a news conference at the annual conference of the Association of the U.S. Army.
Odierno’s comments came as he and Army Secretary John McHugh discussed the impact of the recent U.S. government shutdown as well as across-the-board budget cuts that forced the military to slash spending in March, nearly halfway through its fiscal year.
McHugh and Odierno both appealed to Congress to find a way to give the military more financial predictability so it can plan effectively. McHugh said that with the way the military is currently funded, budgets that are approved today are based on planning that occurred three years earlier.
“You can’t run the most important military on the face of the Earth locked into three-year-old budgets,” McHugh said.
The Army was hit particularly hard by the cuts in March, known as sequestration, because of higher-than-projected Afghanistan war costs and the need to make up those funds from its operations accounts, which include money for training.
“We had to stop training, basically, in the last six months of the year,” Odierno said.

That doesn’t mean all training has ceased, but virtually all training above the individual, squad and platoon level has been curtailed. It costs a lot of money to send a company of tanks to the field for a week or two. Fuel, food, spare parts, ammunition, batteries and all sorts of sundries add up quickly. Even more expensive is sending an entire Brigade Combat Team to the field. Few posts actually have sufficient real estate to conduct quality training for an entire BCT so there’s the added expense of shipping the BCT’s people and equipment to a training area large enough to handle that size unit. And since that’s money the Army doesn’t have, they just aren’t doing it.

But units that haven’t trained together for their wartime mission, as integrated units, will find it difficult, if not impossible, to successfully complete those wartime missions. As friend-of-the-blog Esli has often noted, so many troops have had multiple wartime deployments, but virtually no experience in maneuver warfare combined-arms operations at the company level, let alone at the BCT or division level.

If a crisis comes (and sooner or later, they always do), the Army will deploy troops as needed. And those troops will pay a price in blood to learn lessons they were supposed to pay for in sweat.

Deep Thoughts On Leadership and Leader Development.

No, not mine. I might have fairly deep thoughts on the subject, but lack an ability to articulate them very well.

But I did stumble across the blog of an active Army officer who does have some serious thoughts on the matter. There are very, very few good Army blogs written by active duty folks. There used to be several, but it seems blogging in the Army is dying. So let us cherish them when we find them.

I was going to post on this piece in The Army Times, but came across this brief post instead.

I’m not sure I still have all of the Army memorabilia that I’ve acquired over the years, but I’ve still kept that note.  I keep it as a reminder that a small act, something as simple as a handwritten correspondence, can let a junior leader  know that his or her service and sacrifices are appreciated.  It probably only took him 10-15 minutes to do it, but it still resonates with me almost a decade later.

To many junior leaders the microcosm of their unit (Brigade and below) is the Army, and if we show them that we care and are committed to them, in their eyes the Army cares and is committed to them.

Read the whole thing, then, of course, start reading the whole blog. I’ve blogrolled him.

The Future Vertical Lift Program is already making me cry.

Forbes has a pretty interesting look at one of the few bright spots in the American military aviation industry, helicopters, and sees clouds on the horizon in terms of procurement numbers. It is a pretty interesting article, and you might enjoy it.

But the part that caught my eye was this:

Meantime, the next generation of rotorcraft will take time to develop.  In June, the US Army selected three designs for its Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator program.  JMR-TD is the precursor to the Department of Defense’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, and it should produce three medium size class technology demonstrators to be built by 2017.

There’s a lot of promise with FVL, which, for a start, is intended to replace 2,000-4,000 UH-60 medium lift models and AH-64 attack helicopters.  It will also be used to provide replacements for scout and heavy lift models through a modular design approach that will allow the airframe to be scaled.  In all, it could be worth over $100 billion.  However, FVL procurement will not begin until 2030, at the earliest.

That’s the part that scares me.  Actually, the first paragraph isn’t so bad. A technology demonstrator (TD) program isn’t, per se, bad. In fact, it is probably a pretty good idea. The problem is, a TD in effect becomes a prototype competition (much as happened in the JSF program) and the rules that determine the winner for a TD program are different from the rules that would be used in a genuine prototype fly-off for a production aircraft.

No, what really concerns me is the program looks structured to provide a “one airframe fits all” approach.

Which, it won’t. The reason we have different airframes is simply because one airframe simply cannot adequately perform all the mission sets required.

Now, a good deal of commonality among different airframes isn’t bad. For instance, the cockpit of the Boeing 757 and 767 are virtually identical. If you can fly one, you can pretty much fly the other. And using the same parts gives economies of scale in procurement and maintenance.  The same holds true with most Airbus single aisle airliners.

Should the FVL program lead to new technologies in engine, rotors,avionics,  noise and infrared suppression and other improvements, by all means, those developments should, where feasible, be shared across future programs.

But the bit about scalability is scaring me. I strongly suspect that rather than developing separate airframes with common components, the services will try to develop a common airframe with divergent missions. And that will be doomed to failure.

After all, it isn’t like this hasn’t happened before. The cancelled RAH-66 Comanche was the sole fruit of what was, until then, the most ambitious procurement program the Army ever undertook- the LHX. The Light Helicopter Experimental program was started in the early 1980s to replace the first generation of turbine powered helicopters of the Army. It was intended to replace the UH-1, the AH-1, the OH-6 and the OH-58, and eventually even replace the UH-60 and AH-64 that were just beginning to enter service as the LHX program was begun.

Trying to make one program fulfill several different roles meant a leap in technology was needed. Which meant the program was high risk. And a high risk program means a drawn out development schedule, which means high costs. And high costs per unit demand a more and more capable unit, which drives up the need for a technological leap, which makes a program high risk, which….

Eventually, the lift helicopter portions of the program were shed, and the focus was on a light armed scout. And that scout was burdened with ever greater requirements to be far more advanced than any previous helicopter. No doubt, a fair amount of the gold-plating of the program was a result of the contractor coming up with innovative ideas of what they could do- given the time and money to try, of course.

But so much time was spent developing the resulting RAH-66 helicopter that its mission, to slip far behind the lines of any Soviet armored assault on Western Europe, and locate valuable targets for other Army assets, was overtaken by other technologies, not to mention the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.

After a quarter century of development and untold billions of dollars in development, the Army ended up with nothing.

Where the Army (and the other services) have had great success in aviation procurement is in tightly defining a mission and more importantly, tightly defining the requirements to fulfill that mission. When the services have ruthlessly resisted the call to add more capabilities beyond the immediate level needed to accomplish a mission, and have steadfastly avoided mission creep, they’ve had good success in buying aircraft. But without that discipline, they’ve suffered setback after embarrassing setback and ballooning costs and development timelines.

Let’s hope the FVL program manager can read a little history.

RFI vs. Big Green

Strategy Page has a post up about the Rapid Fielding Initiative, a streamlined way of getting certain types of equipment into the hands of troops, outside the normal procurement channels.

When wars end there is a search for lessons. One of the most important lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan is that the same lessons tend to be relearned in war after war. The recent wars were different because there was some awareness of this repetition (learning lessons, forgetting them, learning them again during the next war). Perhaps the most important lesson learned this time around was that a lot (usually most) wisdom and innovations begins at the bottom, not at the top. In past wars leaders often believed they knew how to deal with the smallest details of combat operations and ordered disastrous policies to be implemented. There was a lot less of that this time around.

In Iraq and Afghanistan the military, especially the army, was quick to take advice from the troops actually doing the fighting. That was recognized even before Iraq and led to the RFI (Rapid Fielding Initiative). Established in 2002, RFI recognized that the American army did not always have the best weapons and equipment available and that the troops and low-level commanders had a better idea of what was needed than the senior generals and politicians. RFI was intended to do something about that and do it quickly. During the next nine years the army approved the purchase of 409 items immediately, which is what RFI was all about. Last year the army began deciding which of these RFI items to make standard equipment (about a quarter of them) and which to discard (the rest, although many were obsolete and improved replacements were being sought). The marines went through the same process and found that most of their RFI items were worth keeping. This is due to the marines having a tradition of doing more with less (since they have much less money to spend per person than the army).

Not everyone was a fan of RFI. Traditional (government and contractor) weapons and equipment developers did not like RFI. Procurement bureaucrats like to take their time, even when there’s a war going on. This is mainly to cover everyone’s ass and try to placate all the big shots and constituencies demanding certain features. In wartime, this process is sped up somewhat but it is always slower than it has to be.

During a lot of my time in the Army, from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s, the Army swung from robust budgets, to fairly lean times (though rarely could the term austere be genuinely used).  But there’s never enough money, especially in peacetime, to buy everything you want. So the Army tended to prioritize procurement funding toward big ticket, long lead time items, be it vehicles, communications, or missiles.  Little stuff, such as the personal equipment soldiers actually wear or use, tended to fall to the back of the line. An example- in an era when virtually every person who camps or hikes can get a very nice, completely waterproof/windproof one-man tent from REI for around $100, the Army was still issuing the cotton duck shelter half pup-tent first fielded around 1912.

A good example of a piece of kit that quickly found its way to the troops is the Camelback hydration system. It’s easier and quieter to carry a larger volume of water with a Camelback than with traditional Army canteens. And so, virtually every troop now uses one. Troops started buying them with their own money. But  the Army quickly found a way to find funding to buy them for issue to the troops.

Still, rapid fielding of low cost items like personal gear isn’t without its risks. For instance, Let’s say a notional company makes a neat little widget that fills a niche for the troops. But they tend to only make 5000 a years. Suddenly faced with an order for 50,000, they’re going to struggle to meet demand, and, almost certainly, there will be quality control issues in trying to ramp up production. Existing supply line items already in the Army’s inventory tend to have established supply chains, and even surges in production tend to cause less disruption than for Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) items.

And while sometimes, new, better equipment for more advanced uses, say, communications, is available from vendors, just buying it doesn’t mean there are no problems.

In Craig’s series on the Past, Present and Future of Tactical Radios, he discussed the challenges of training soldiers to adapt to the SINCGARS family of tactical radios. Mind you, this was a system that was procured through normal channels. Doctrinal Field Manuals, and Technical Manuals were written, reviewed and published. New Equipment Training Teams (NETT) went to each unit as it fielded the SINCGARS and gave intense instruction in the use and maintenance of the radios. And yet, the complexity of the full range of features meant that the learning curve was still very steep, leaving many units to forego using the secure modes built in, and operating in unsecure, single channel mode- thus obviating the whole point of fielding SINCGARS in the first place.

Come the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the SINCGARS family had shortcomings that desperately needed to be addressed. As Craig mentioned, the PRC-150/152 family of radios was available off the shelf to address those shortcomings, primarily in data transmission, and in integrating with GPS, but also to provide SATCOM and other waveform capabilities down to low level tactical units via a single radio system.  The Army quickly bought tens of thousands of these radios.

But while the radios themselves provided enhanced capability, that didn’t mean there were not some disadvantages to buying them this way.

Buying off the shelf means the Army hasn’t developed the doctrinal or technical training to teach soldiers how best to use or maintain the radios, nor to establish networks. Some doctrine would translate over from previous manuals, but each unit would tend to develop its own interpretation, and often such interpretations don’t translate from unit to unit. Thus, the point of expanding capabilities instead can turn to friction between disparate units trying to establish comms with one another.  Because the radios haven’t been bought through the conventional procurement system, spare parts and organizational and higher level maintenance procedures and training aren’t in place. In effect, buying a new system off the shelf to address a shortcoming can actually produce as many new problems as it solves.

Mind you, one reason this RFI for COTS equipment takes place is that the conventional procurement system is so sclerotic that even relatively simple systems such as backpack radios can take 10-15 years to wend their way through the procurement maze, much of that time spent even before hardware is first assembled. By the time a viable piece of hardware has been developed, technology has moved on so far that the fielded piece is already obsolescent, prompting the end user to instead lobby to buy COTS.

Rick Atkinson’s The Liberation Trilogy

The Liberation Trilogy


An Army at Dawn


The Day of Battle


The Guns at Last Light


The Archetype of an epic tale is the Three Act play, and to this day, the format remains in constant use.

But it is rare for the events of history to so neatly conform to this methodology. But the history of the US Army in World War II follows this arc quite closely.

Act I, the campaign in Africa introduces our protagonist, a young brash Army, versus its antagonist, a battle hardened Wehrmacht that seems nearly invincible. The battle is joined, and the protagonist suffers defeats and setbacks, only to achieve a victory, but not the final victory, at the end of the first act.

Act II brings our Army to the Italian campaign. As with all second acts, it starts with optimism, but also gathering clouds.  Mighty struggles will ensue, and dark times ahead for our hero.

Act III, the Invasion and Campaign in Western Europe will eventually lead to the great finale showdown, the epic battle- in this case, the Battle of the Bulge- and to the final victory, with our hero poised to savor the fruits of victory, and imagine new horizons.

It is a tale that begs for a talented writer to put it to paper.

Fourteen years ago, Rick Atkinson set out to tell the story of the US Army’s World War II European campaigns. And not surprisingly, he followed the arc that history had providentially set out for him, dedicating a book to each of the three major campaigns of the Army in Europe.*

The Liberation Trilogy is a narrative, not a textbook.  It tells a tale, not a history. Serious historians may well enjoy reading it, but would focus on other historical records. But for the lay reader, or the professional soldier, the story is well told, accessible, and often moving.

The story of the Army’s campaigns is also very much a story of coalition warfare, especially with the British, but to a fair extent also the French. The Army’s operations cannot be understood without a fair grasp of the overall Allied campaign, and Atkinson devotes a fair amount of attention to this higher point of view. But Atkinson also does a fine job of bringing the challenges and heartache of the average soldier to the reader, through extensive use of soldiers letters and oral histories.  Throughout the trilogy, we hear Privates and Captains tell the despair, fatigue, exhilaration, and frustration of men at war.

From a personality standpoint, every story of the campaigns must tell of the complex, often tense, sometimes acrimonious relationships between Eisenhower, Montgomery, Bradley, and of course, Patton. Eisenhower was also intensely aware of the political factors at play at his level of command. The US war aim was to secure peace through the defeat of Germany. And Roosevelt was largely content to leave Eisenhower under the day to day supervision of George Marshall. The British war aim, as seen by Churchill, was to secure the future of the Empire through the defeat of Germany, and he had no reservations about bypassing the Combined Chiefs and pleading his case for a course of action directly to Ike, or whispering in Monty’s ear that he should pursue a certain course.

But for all the challenges of coalition warfare and the oft differing aims and strategies of the Allies, they were remarkably successful in achieving compromise courses of action that were plausible, and if not the most perfectly possible plans, ultimately effective. The Germans, with the strength of unity of command, found themselves time and again hamstrung by schemes of maneuver that were patently impossible, and yet had to be tried, if only because The Fuhrer had so deemed.

While Atkinson also pays more attention to the 6th Army Group operations in the south than most histories, he still provides only the barest bones. Of course, that’s largely because Eisenhower too paid only the barest attention to operations in the south. The main effort was in the north. The only question for the Allies to suss out was would it be Monty’s 21st Army Group, or Bradley’s 12 Army Group?

Atkinson does a serviceable job of detailing the timelines of major operations, and does so with a minimum of jargon. The reader new to military history should have little trouble understanding the books.

Generously footnoted, the bibliography suggests quite a number of further books for the reader.

A very solid, very readable series, and while I’m frustrated it took 14 years for Rick to complete the series, it was worth the wait. Now if he’ll only do a similar series on the Army in the Pacific.

*Granted, North Africa isn’t Europe, but virtually all the fighting was done by either the Americans, the Europeans, or their colonial troops, and was so close to the European continent that it was for all practical matters, a European campaign.


Henry Holt publishers provided an advanced review copy of The Guns At Last Light. I had previously bought my own copies of An Army at Dawn, and The Day of Battle.

Bagram Batman

One of the annoyances of being stationed overseas was Armed Forces Networks, the provider of pretty much the only English language television available back in the late 80s/early 90s. It wasn’t so much that the programming was bad and out of date. The problem was, unlike regular commercial television, the “commercials” were in fact public service announcements from the Army reminding you of such weighty matters as “don’t bounce checks at the PX,” and “don’t beat your wife and kids,” and the ever popular “don’t abandon your privately owned vehicle when you rotate back to the states.” All delivered with the charm and panache one expects out of a government run entity.

AFN still runs overseas networks, particularly in fun places like Afghanistan, home to the sprawling Bagram Airbase. And while I’m certain most of the AFN produced content is as lame as it ever was, at least one campaign has shown someone, somewhere, screwed up and let a little humor into the system.

Meet Bagram Batman.


Does the Army Still Need Armor?

That’s the question posed by this piece at Foreign Affairs. Sadly, it’s a premium article, so I can’t read the whole thing, just the set up. But it does raise the question. Do we still need heavy forces in an era of a “pivot to Asia?”

I’ll just note that we’ve actually spent a lot of time post-World War II fighting in Asia, and armor was important in every fight.

Plus, here’s a tank.

Continue reading “Does the Army Still Need Armor?”

Graveyard of Peaches: How Tennessee Will Win Its War Against Georgia | Danger Room |

The War Between the States ended almost 150 years ago, but the Georgia state senate is making threatening noises against its neighbor. It should think twice. Occupying Iraq and Afghanistan is a cakewalk compared to the hellscape that southeast Tennessee poses for an invading army.

Last week, the Georgia state senate voted to sue the state of Tennessee in order to claim a sliver of land that would grant Georgia access to the Tennessee River. Georgia, readers must understand, has mismanaged its own water resources to the point where it now struggles to supply enough water for the residents of Atlanta (and its sprawling suburbs and exurbs) to fill their above-ground pools and wash the TruckNutz on their mini-vans. Dangerously, the state is actually seeking to redraw a border that has kept the peace for over 200 years, and all over a crucial resource — a resource belonging, rightfully, to the Tennessee of my ancestors.

I have nothing against (most parts of) Georgia. Growing up, though, my mother would drive my sister and me south on I-75, ostensibly to watch a Braves game or visit our cousins, but really to show us the horrors of life beyond the green mountains and valleys of our native southeast Tennessee, where much of my family remains. Other parts of Georgia are lovely: I had the good fortune to be stationed in Savannah for several years while serving in the U.S. Army. But the greater Atlanta area is a horrible twisted mess of concrete overpasses and far-flung skyscrapers. Once south of Cartersville, it’s easy to understand why William Tecumseh Sherman thought it wisest to just burn the whole place down and start over.

via Graveyard of Peaches: How Tennessee Will Win Its War Against Georgia | Danger Room |

Andrew might just have had his tongue just a bit in cheek here. After all, it was published on April Fools Day.

On the other hand, it is a pretty apt metaphor for the responses our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan have used. And having had a couple of Tennesseans working for me, yes, they are a fractious bunch.