The U.S. Army has established the $1.6-Billion Reset program to overhaul its war-torn aircraft.
By John R. Guardiano
For U.S. military pilots and maintainers, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is just the beginning. And the biggest problem, really, is not al Qaeda-led insurgencies. Rather, it’s the harsh desert environment and forbidding Afghan mountains.
“Obviously, one of our biggest enemies is the sand. It’s absolute death on the rotor heads,” said Col. Gregg Gass, commanding officer of the 101st Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Div. (Air Assault). “It gets so fine that, with all the bearings, it’s really hard to see and clean out.”
The Afghan mountains present similar problems with fine, granular dust. Moreover, the mountains’ intimidating peaks and valleys make ground transportation extraordinarily difficult, particularly at night. U.S. forces thus have come to rely on helicopters to an unprecedented extent, and this has exacted a heavy toll on these aircraft.
“We’re working them harder than we ever have because we have to. They’re what sustain us,” said Lt. Col. Terry Morgan, commander of the 1st Sqdn., 17th Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Div.
So it’s not surprising that one of the biggest military initiatives today is the Army Aviation Reset Program. The $1.6-billion initiative is designed to restore war-torn aircraft to their pre-war status.
This involves detailed cleanings and inspections that extend well beyond standard phase-based maintenance. It also involves aircraft modifications that may be past due or soon required.
Reset is a Herculean effort for which planning began in April 2003, while the U.S. military was still enmeshed in overthrowing Saddam Hussein. A Ft. Rucker-based program office was set up in July, and the effort has slowly but steadily gained momentum.
What’s more, at least so long as the United States remains in Iraq and Afghanistan, Reset is the gift that keeps on giving. Indeed, there is no end in sight: The aircraft eventually must deploy back to the United States and be prepped, or reset, for the next overseas deployment. In short, Army helicopters must ship out and shape up—and they’re doing just that.
“We’ve got 650 aircraft available, all physically back here” in the United States, said the Army’s aviation Reset program manager, Lt. Col. Ray Woolery. “Some of them have been back for a year, some have just trickled in. But they’re all physically sitting at locations where we can get to them.”
These locations include more than a dozen major Army and National Guard bases, such as Ft. Bragg, N.C., home to the 82nd Airborne Div., and Ft. Campbell, Ky., home to the 101st.
At press time in mid-May, the Army was resetting 140 aircraft and 125 had been finished being reset. The 125 completed aircraft break down as follows: 38 AH-64 Apaches, 72 UH-60 Black Hawks, 13 CH-47 Chinooks, and two OH-58D Kiowa Warriors.
If the majority of the aircraft completed are Black Hawks, that’s only because most of the Army’s helicopter fleet is comprised of UH-60s. The service determines which helicopters have priority in the Reset program. Units that are scheduled to deploy back to Iraq or Afghanistan have priority and their most important aircraft get overhauled first, Woolery said.
The Reset program office also is supporting the Army’s modularity buildup.
The Army is reorganizing its force structure so that it can respond more effectively and expeditiously to the types of post-conflict tribal wars and insurgencies that likely will be commonplace in the 21st century. The aim is to have smaller and more modular, brigade-centered units that can cope with contingency operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Army divisions currently have three maneuver brigades. The new modular force is to have four. By 2007, the service is to have 48 active-duty brigade combat teams, up from 33 today. The National Guard is revamping its 15 enhanced separate brigades into 22 brigade combat teams.
The 3rd Infantry Div. is the first unit being restructured for modularity, with the 101st next in line. The 3rd returned from Iraq in September, the 101st in February. Both units will be among the first to re-deploy to the Middle East. In fact, the 3rd Infantry Div. may do so this fall, service officials said. Not coincidentally, Reset for the 3rd Infantry Div. is an overriding Army priority.
“I have a CH-47 unit that is sitting at Ft. Stewart [Ga.], with 15 helicopters. Twelve of those will become 3rd Infantry aircraft,” Woolery said. “So the critical piece is those 12 aircraft, which need to be done [in time] to meet 3rd Infantry’s training schedule.”
The $1.6-billion allocated to the project for Fiscal ‘03 and ‘04 is for the reset of 1,000 aircraft. That’s enough money. The problem is time. The Army doesn’t expect to reset all of these aircraft until next February. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would say, Reset is a long, hard slog.
Indeed, according to Woolery, it has taken 102 days on average to reset the Apache, with the quickest turnaround time being 64 days. The corresponding numbers for the Chinook are 149 and 83 days. For the Black Hawk, it is 100 and 34 days, and for the Kiowa Warrior it is 100 and 72 days. The longest reset took 200 days.
“We’re trying to reduce the time on all four systems,” Woolery said. “We’re trying to balance the Army’s requirements for training with our ability to reset these aircraft.”
This balancing act has required the program office to scale back, from 300 to 200, the number of aircraft that it hopes to be working on in any given month. The Army expects to reach that goal in July. However, if the service could shorten the reset timeline, then units could afford to part with more of their aircraft.
The time required for reset “comes down every two weeks,” Woolery said. “You’ll see a significant change in the learning curve. Experience is enormous. Unfortunately, our populace of aircraft is so small that to get those 100-plus days down will take more aircraft than we have now.”
Another limiting factor is the availability of spare parts. The warriors on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan obviously have first priority.
Next in line is the training school in Ft. Rucker, which ensures that the Army has enough pilots ready to train and deploy. Then there are the forces actually deploying to South Korea, the Philippines and other potential trouble spots. “You’ve also got homeland defense and everything else,” Woolery noted. In short, many Army units are competing for a limited number of spare parts.
With the help of helicopter airframe manufacturers, the Army drafted a parts acquisition plan in the spring of 2003 that tried to anticipate which parts, exactly, would be required and in what precise quantities. The service has purchased spare parts based on that plan.
However, given the huge repair disparities that exist among the aircraft, and given the service’s limited experience with Reset, the parts acquisition plan differs considerably from the Army’s actual requirements.
“Many major requirements, such as rotor blades, swashplates and engines were anticipated reasonably well, but the supply chain takes some amount of time to spool up,” said Tom Cavanaugh, Boeing’s manager for Chinook support initiatives.
“No two aircraft are exactly the same,” Woolery explained. “We’ll look at two of the same aircraft type, in the same unit, flying the same missions in the same geographic location, and they’ll require different fixes and different repairs. We’ll find corrosion in one spot on one aircraft. Then we’ll open up the second aircraft and find the same type of corrosion in a different location.”
Military and industry officials aren’t sure what, exactly, accounts for these discrepancies. “It’s actually a fairly small sample, statistically, so variability isn’t all that surprising,” Cavanaugh said. “However, there are some factors that we believe are driving these differences.”
For example, some of the helicopters deployed to Iraq originated from a salty, maritime environment, where corrosion has taken more of a toll. Moreover, “small changes in the local conditions on the airframe, such as protective coatings on parts, salt content in the sand, or where the sand gets trapped, can be enough to permit corrosion to gain a toehold,” Cavanaugh said.
In any case, discrepancies among the aircraft makes parts requisition planning exceedingly difficult. Nonetheless, officials said, as the number of Reset aircraft rises, trends should become discernable. This, in turn, should make the entire effort much more predictable and manageable.
“The biggest single challenge is getting the parts,” Cavanaugh said. “The trick is determining what parts we ought to get and then going out and getting them. But I’m sure that as we work on the aircraft and learn more about what’s going on, we’re going to start seeing trends that we can anticipate and plan for.”
Boeing has offered to assist the Army with Chinook and Apache Reset. Ditto Sikorsky with the Black Hawk.
The value of the proposed contracts has not been disclosed. However, the two companies would perform their work independently of the Army as a supplemental effort to the service’s own indigenous Reset. Boeing anticipates overhauling 15 Apaches and 25 Chinooks in a 1.5-year program beginning in September. Sikorsky anticipates that it can overhaul 200 Black Hawks annually.
“Who has better accessibility to Sikorsky aircraft and what you need to know [for repairs] on the Black Hawk than the organization that manufactures the helicopter?” said David Adler, Sikorsky’s vice president for aftermarket support.
Adler heads up Sikorsky Support Services, Inc. The wholly-owned Sikorsky subsidiary is based in Stratford, Conn., but Reset work would not be done there, Adler said.
The company instead would reset aircraft on-site, at Army bases. Sikorsky also could expand its operations in Jacksonville, Fla., where it currently performs maintenance work on U.S. Navy H-60 Seahawks. Boeing, too, would perform any Reset work outside of its manufacturing facilities in Ridley Park, Pa, and Mesa, Ariz. “Our factories are optimized for newly built and remanufactured aircraft. That’s a different skill set than what’s required for repair and maintenance work,” Cavanaugh explained.
There also is a cost differential involved. “Our [support services] labor rate is much more competitive vis-à-vis our own factory costs,” Adler said. Sikorsky’s UH-60 workforce is unionized, as is Boeing’s CH-47 workforce. A union operation typically pays workers more and thus is more costly than a non-union operation.
Boeing and Sikorsky are careful to praise the Army’s own indigenous Reset efforts. However, both companies think they can do the work more quickly. “The Army would like to do this in 60 days and we think we can get to that,” Cavanaugh said. “We think we can help them with a quick turnaround.”
The Army is favorably disposed to employ the airframe manufacturers in the Reset effort. In fact, more than 90 percent of the people working on Reset already are contractors, and the workforce is projected to rise from 1,500 today to around 2,000 within the next few months.
“There aren’t enough Army folks to do this,” Woolery said. “The helicopter industry is looking at increasing the industrial base to support additional requirements, and we have some proposals on the table for them to do Reset on select aircraft.”
What really helps now, he added, is that the Army is developing electronic databases for the Reset program. This stands in marked contrast to the last big reset, after Operation Desert Storm 13 years ago. Indeed, the maintenance data from the first Gulf War was recorded on paper and thus has not been readily available to Army planners.
But with advanced computer-based systems, maintenance problems can be anticipated, Woolery said. Trends in performance and failures can be identified and parts can be ordered well before they are needed, thus permitting superior program management and execution.
Part and parcel of the Reset effort is an attempt to minimize maintenance problems before they metastasize. Toward that end, the Army is deploying enhanced desert maintenance kits for aircraft in Iraq. These kits include “blade boots” to protect the leading edges of the main and tail rotor blades from environmental damage. Each boot is the equivalent of seven coats of paint and significantly extends blade life.
The Army also is ensuring that all of its aircraft have engine barrier filters. Aerospace Filtration Systems filters already were standard on the Kiowa Warrior, and filters now are being purchased for the Black Hawk and Apache, Woolery said.
“We had one unit that had engine barrier filters during the conflict and it never replaced an engine,” he noted. “We had another [unit] that did not [have engine barrier filters] and it had to replace every engine. These things have been shown to make a real difference.”
Prior to getting the filters, engines on the OH-58Ds were being replaced every 20-50 hr. With introduction of the new filtration systems, the OH-58Ds are making it all the way to their 1,750 hr. TBO, according to Aerospace Filtration.
Equally important, helicopter crews are performing engine cleanings and phase-based maintenance more rigorously and more frequently. “We’re finding that those units that have conducted exceptional engine maintenance have gotten a little more life before removal, a little more use from their engines,” he said.
Unusual Wear and Tear
The increase in engine life ranges from 10–25 percent, “enough for us to implement a [formal] process” mandating more rigorous and more frequent cleanings, he noted.
For example, according to Gass, the 101st Aviation Brigade performed routine, phase-based maintenance on its Apaches more than 75 times from May to December 2003. The unit typically performs phase-based maintenance 15–20 times during such a period. However, Gass said, the harsh desert environment and unusually high operations tempo require additional maintenance work.
“We were flying 150–200 percent of our annual flight time, and that just puts unusual wear and tear on your aircraft,” he explained.
Ironically, helicopters that returned stateside soon after the war are in worse shape than those that remained in the desert for a full year. The cessation of major combat operations allowed helicopter crews to perform maintenance work that had been neglected during the war, Gass said. The Army also began flying off paved surfaces rather than the sand, which further limited environmental damage, he noted.
The damage has been reduced, but it has not been eliminated. Consequently, the Army is planning now for next year’s Reset.
“We’re making plans for FY05 on those aircraft that are in theater now, so that we’re prepared for them to return” Woolery said. “But with the experience, knowledge and electronic databases that we now have, things should be easier. We’ll continue to grow to a point and then we’ll sustain operations. We’re getting there.”