With Afghanistan already in the drawdown stages in the minds of politicians, the challenge ahead for U.S. Army Aviation commanders will be to maintain the quality, capability, volume and performance of the force it has built up since the windfall in spending following the cancellation of the Comanche program. As its commander Maj. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield stated during his opening address at the recent AUSA Institute of Land Warfare (ILW) aviation conference, “the last 10 years of war are not the blueprint for the next war.”
But Army Aviation is starting this new phase in U.S. global defense strategy from a position of strength. It is well on the way to modernizing its entire fleet—with the exception of the Kiowa Warrior and the oldest fleet in the books, the variety of training aircraft at Fort Rucker, Ala. It is also well into the process of constituting its 13th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB)—getting it through the budgetary door before it slams shut. Six CABs are currently committed globally: four in Afghanistan, one in Kuwait (still supporting the Iraq forces in spite of the heavy PR campaign emphasizing departure of all troops from that country) and one in South Korea. But the “elephant in the room” is the government’s declared commitment to cutting $487 billion from defense spending in the next decade.
Speaking in January 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, “...with the end of U.S. military commitments in Iraq and the drawdown that is already under way in Afghanistan, the Army and Marines will no longer need to be sized to support the kind of large-scale, long-term stability operations that have dominated military priorities and force generation over the past decade.” So if there is a reduction in ground force numbers, it is likely that Army Aviation will be reduced accordingly. Panetta added to his remarks saying the “U.S. joint force will be smaller, and it will be leaner.”
So joint is also in; remember, this is why the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) aircraft is—this time—unlikely to go away. Joint equipment programs are going to increasingly appeal to DoD financiers because a shared platform across different forces equates to reductions in not only procurement but also through-life ownership costs. So better for the Army, the Marines, the Air Force and the Navy to have their share of JMR aircraft rather than lose out by not participating—then have no option further down the road.
The first players in this development will have an opportunity to shape the design for the future—those coming to the table reluctantly at a later stage may be limited in their ability to influence such a program.
Panetta also stated the requirement to the future force being able to regenerate and mobilize quickly, and that it was a priority to maintain a strong National Guard. The challenge will be to ensure that the Guard is equipped, trained and paid in line with the level of commitment expected of it in the future. If, as has already been stated, it will continue to take its share of front line duties, carrying out the same tasks and missions as its regular colleagues, then the build up in its force structure and ability to integrate with regular formations must continue. Many have stated in recent times that it’s still not at a level that will be required, particularly in terms of pre-deployment training with regular units, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and Special Forces. On-the-job training, while possible at times in Afghanistan, may not be possible next time around. In the case of the Guard, it will be very tempting for financiers to contemplate slipping back into the mindset that placed the Guard at a lower level of requirement to the regulars—but this must not happen if they are to be relied upon to be interchangeable operationally with the regular force.
Crutchfield’s will lay down his line on the general way ahead for Army Aviation in April at Quad-A in Nashville, Tenn. He will release his Vision 2030 paper and campaign plan for the future, but gave a brief insight as to its contents during AUSA. “We need to sustain the active reserve when the Army is not at war. We need to know what our advisories can exploit in our current equipment. And we have to rethink the current way of doing business in our acquisition process.” Finally, he said, everyone in aviation needs to take an “appetite suppressant” for the journey ahead. “We need to be happy with what is good enough.” By this he didn’t mean cutting capability, but having what was required to get the job done in a balanced way, measured against the overall capability of the force available. In short, there won’t be any more Comanches.