Late last year, Rotor & Wing went to Fort Rucker, Ala., the home of U.S. Army Aviation, to meet with Brig. Gen. Tim Edens (then colonel), deputy commanding general at U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence (USAACE), together with members of his staff including Ellis Golson, director of the Capability Development and Integration Directorate (CDID). While Edens’ responsibility is focused on the training of the aviation soldiers who man the Army’s combat aviation brigades (CABs), Golson’s CDID represents the concepts side of aviation. Edens summarizes Golson’s part thus: “when it comes to Fort Rucker as far as the proponancy and programs, Ellis Golsen is Army Aviation—he has the talent and the knowledge of how we do business.” The main business at Fort Rucker is to train aviation troops—active, reserve and National Guard. “We train individual aviators as a schoolhouse but work across the enterprise including ForceCom, Army G3 aviation, PEO aviation, etc., to fully train and equip the force,” says Edens. “There are a lot of challenges for all militaries right now and the U.S. is no exception to that. We have multiple fronts and we have to keep up with R4Gen—the regeneration cycle which all of our units are in. There are various timeframes and expectations within that but the point that I would like to make is that USAAV is fully committed.”
To keep pace with the demands Edens says that premier training is required and that is what Brig. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield insists is delivered at Fort Rucker. “We do believe we are being successful in that endeavor and meeting the very high demand, and I do mean high, for aviation forces whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo or other contingency areas as well as Homeland Defense requirements.”
There is more to Fort Rucker than a corner of Alabama. It also includes fixed-wing aviation training (FWATS) facility in West Virginia, western aviation training (WATS) facility in Arizona, and EAATS Pennsylvania. Fort Eustis in Virginia also contributes maintenance training while Fort Watchuka provides UAS training.
To meet the demand for soldiers, Forces Command established a model around 2003 that would cycle forces through the operational zones. Fort Rucker’s graduates would cycle into the reset-train phase of that so that they had an opportunity to collectively train before they redeployed. “The challenge with that was that we were having to turn around the units very quickly—a year to a year-and-a-half between deployments. So you also throw in the requirement to reset their aircraft and in some occasions we would change the mission configuration of their airplane. We would add survivability gear, or new sensors, and that would further delay and impact on that units ability to train; if you’re adding something on then you can’t go fly. But we worked that through the aviation enterprise and synchronized between Forces Command, Missile Command [AMCOM], the PEO and Fort Rucker to make sure it happened.”
On the individual level, weekly collaboration sessions are held to identify who is doing what and when, who is going to operations next, and what priorities do they have. This means constantly checking with the units in theater to find out what challenges they currently have and adapting the training to meet them. “We have re-missioned our re-evaluation and standardization to go into theater 120-90 days before that unit deploys. We already know when their next rotation was going to be: how many of their people need to go to the IP course, how many need to go to the advanced course, how many are being reassigned or moving to a new location, how many airplanes need modification. We know all that before they redeploy so we should have everything ready and waiting for them when they arrive back. In theory that works very well, but as we say in the military, ‘no plan ever survives first contact.’ That is applicable here—that is the reason we have the weekly checks.”
When it was realized that Fort Rucker was playing an even greater role in providing combat aviators with additional CABs, and throughput would need to be increased, they received additional aircraft to meet the training loads that were anticipated over the next three to four years. Retention and recruiting goals have also been met since the war started and these are on track to be met again.
Golson adds that from a development and budgetary standpoint Army Aviation is in good shape: “the Army system is based on whatever we have demands for and we try to meet those demands. Today there is a great demand for tactical mobility on the battlefield. If you want to move about in Afghanistan there are not many roads so you have to fly into the areas you need to be in. But the cost to airframes has been high with four to five times the workload that the army was provisionally resourced for before it all started, but we still maintaining around 80 percent operational readiness (across all aircraft). “This is due to the guys on the ground actually turning the wrenches but also the maintenance enterprise—you need people, parts, tools and time to keep it going. It is doing well,” says Edens.
“All aircraft in theater now are equipped with HUMS,” he says. “We are getting some benefit—primarily now it is associated with finding faults before they become a problem, such as a vibrating swash plate. What we don’t know yet—we don’t have that body of data—is the knowledge that are we replacing things before we need to. We are collecting the right data and we just need time to allow us to be comfortable with the decision of when we change parts. We have changed our phased maintenance hours—Black Hawks used to be every 500 hours, now that is every 750 hours. We have changed some of our inspection intervals—however there is still more work to be done. We don’t have prognostics or diagnostics—we just have stuff giving us data. That would have to be built into the platform, right now we are doing add-ons to the platform.”
Moving into the future and where the next emphasis on capability will come from, Golson says that they are looking at every aspect of it. “We are going to take the recon structure (Armed Aerial Scout) and make it manned/unmanned. The TRADOC commander says we need to be looking ahead in five-year increments. We actually need to look further than that, but in reality you can’t.
When asked whether, while in the middle of an asymmetric war, it was possible to look beyond and perhaps back to a large-scale linear fight, Edens replied: “We keep using that mantra of full spectrum ops. We have to be prepared for combined arms operations in an expanded role, meaning taking in non-traditional partners. Also, going back to our old tactics and techniques and doing security operations over wide areas. We are constantly looking to see what capability gaps we might have.”
In terms of industry’s contribution to keeping the ‘developmental ball’ moving forward, Edens said that the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) did a future vertical lift assessment in which the U.S. Army participated. The Future Vertical Lift Consortium, a new government/industry organization, is looking at what new technologies industry can apply but the question is the reaction to technology. “The Army is trying to work its way into capability package sets every two years. That’s aligned with R4Gen but we have to buy smaller sets more often. We can’t wait to fix all 3,000 helicopters before we make a change and that has to be worked into contracting with industry.”
It will always be difficult to avoid fleets within fleets. “We are not going to have a standard configuration [across fleets] we just need to figure out how to manage the process. But sometimes we need to adapt faster than our adversary can do. The network side is key: How do we keep synchronized [on a particular technology] when it is changing faster than any of us imagine? The complexity of the operations aren’t going to get any more simple either,” states Goson.
The way ahead for the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) is well known as to be based around an optionally piloted vehicle. “As we work through this we are doing cost benefit because I don’t want to spend any more money for a capability than we have to,” confirms Golson. “The way we are looking at it is: the Phase 1 study established that it needed to be for reconnaissance and needed to be a manned/unmanned combination. Two platforms combined in different mixes... We are now in the phase of the study where we are considering where in the mix the optionally piloted vehicle will be. Given the complexities of the operating environment though, that’s when you start managing the attributes of the sensor on the unmanned payload and the human brain on the manned payload. You go back to Comanche question of ‘why can’t you do this unmanned?’ The conclusion we came to then was whenever we can virtually place a pilot in an air vehicle forward, then we will do it unmanned. Technology is now starting to get there, as there are sensor packages you can put on an airplane and a helmet that you look around and you don’t know you are in an airplane; you see what’s outside the airplane. But how do you transmit that information 300 km/s over the network when you also have five aircraft operating simultaneously. The ability of the network is a part of that overall issue too.”
There are several decision points he says, particularly identifying the right mix of capabilities. “We look at it from an organizational construct. Looking at a squadron, what is the right mix so I don’t put more capability in the manned platform than what I need and therefore drive up the cost. At the same time I don’t put more sensors on the unmanned platform that I need, which will also drive up its cost. So we get into the teaming, interoperability and interdependence between the manned and unmanned as much as we get into building separate platforms. That allows us not to have unnecessary redundancy, which is good, at least in the same formation.”
Golson continues that the overall question is, ‘Do we man the equipment or equip the man?’ Our philosophy is to equip the man.”
Other areas Army Aviation is looking at include hostile fire indicators, but this is a challenge. “Firstly to integrate it onto the airplane. How many sensors do you need, how many directions do you point, how many blind spots will you leave? If I turn in an 80-degree bank do I expose and area that is not covered by any sensor. We need to look at that from an engineering standpoint. Then the technology behind identification. A bullet is traveling fast, so we aren’t talking of countering the bullet, but identifying where it is coming from so we can react or return fire.”
And this idea can move further forward outside the envelope. “I just detected all these guys shooting at me so can I tie that into the network that automatically calls for indirect fire, or are the Rules of Engagement (RoE) going to allow me to do that. Or can I key that into the gun system of the Apache so that when it detects fire it automatically slews around—those kinds of things are next,” he says. “The baseline capability we are trying to get on the airplane at the moment is just to detect, but we still need a doctrinal approach to all these considerations.”