Military

Editor’s Notebook

By James T. McKenna | May 1, 2005

The Challenges of ARH

These are challenging times for the U.S. military, and in particular for Army aviation. The Army is struggling to comprehend just what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Schoomaker's vision of Transformation means for operational units like those of Army aviation. Those units and their leaders also are coping with the demands of an operational tempo unprecedented in recent history and the toll it is taking on their personnel and their equipment. At the same time, they must define the requirements that will result in the equipment they need to combat small, diverse enemies as part of smaller and more mobile battle forces.

The situation brings to mind the timeworn analogy that the tasks are tantamount to changing a tire on a car that's doing 65 mph. down a highway. That's really no surprise to members of the military, who have been asked (perhaps for as long as organized armies have existed) to do more than their funding, staffing and outfitting would seem to support. They're used to changing that fast-spinning tire because they're asked to do it all the time. They know that sometimes they might pull it off. Sometimes the pace will slow down enough for the job to be done. Sometimes the car will crash to a halt and they'll have the time--whether they like it or not--to do the job.

Advertisement

We've seen ample evidence of that in Iraq, where U.S. troops have done a valiant job and logged many successes against a determined enemy despite hurdles imposed by our own side. They fought on and won despite a lack of protective equipment for air and ground troops and aircraft that in some cases were older than the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen flying and riding in them. Early on, Army aviators were betrayed by tactics, techniques and procedures that left them vulnerable to dispersed, loosely organized and devious foes. A recent RAND Corp. report to Rumsfeld on lessons learned from planning and operations in Iraq, first reported April 1 by The Washington Post, notes that "air forces were not responsive enough to take over the Army's mission of suppressing enemy mortars and artillery. Deep-attack Apache helicopter missions in Iraq proved risky and not very productive, while opportunities were lost to employ them for close support or reconnaissance." The report goes on to note that "though planned, no air assault operations were undertaken, primarily because the risks outweighed the expected benefits."

Rumsfeld and his Army chief of staff claim to be big on learning lessons of the past. That's a main reason behind their drive for Transformation. The Army has a unique opportunity to apply the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan in its selection and fielding of new aircraft for its multi-billion dollar Armed Reconnaissance and Light Utility helicopter programs. Civilian and military Army leaders and their contractors squandered decades and billions of dollars on the canceled Comanche program to field an armed reconnaissance and scout helicopter for 21st century fighters. They can't afford to make mistakes or miss the opportunities presented by these new aircraft programs, the first of which is due for selection next month.

There already is a great deal of skepticism of the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter program among observers who question the wisdom of building the Army's future airborne recon/scout capabilities on what are essentially Vietnam-era designs--Bell's 407X, rooted in its 206/OH-58 family, and the Boeing/MD contender, based on the MH-/AH-6. The first two challenges for Army aviation, then, are to make sure that the winning Armed Reconnaissance contender is, in truth, a new and vastly more capable platform for the missions before it, and then to demonstrate to the troops in the field that this is so.

Another challenge is to ensure that the Armed Reconnaissance winner is a flexible design capable of meeting threats that will arise over the next half-century. The rap against the Comanche was that its stealthy features would be of little use in battle against a dispersed enemy hunkered down in an urban or mountain setting, like those faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. The same complaint is lodged against the Kiowa Warrior, designed in part to hover behind a tree line and spot far-off enemy forces with its mast-mounted sight, which apparently has little utility when the enemy is a 17-year-old kid in the street below with a rocket-propelled grenade. The most obvious example of this complaint is Bell's placement of the sensor sights under the nose of its Armed Reconnaissance contender.

But designers of the Comanche and Kiowa Warrior didn't anticipate the fall of the Soviet Union or the rise of Islamic fundamentalist foes in southwest Asia. Who knows whence tomorrow's foes will come? No one can say for certain, but we owe it to our aviation forces to give them platforms that can be adapted rapidly to counter new foes wherever they may arise.

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox