Leadership 101 is all about having the knowledge and decisiveness to make tough decisions when they are required. It is also about getting inside the enemy’s decision-making process so that you can always be ahead one step ahead (at least) of your adversary. In the face of a potentially unrelenting and damaging opponent, Maj. Gen. Kevin Mangum, commanding general of U.S. Army Aviation and his team have done just that. They have delivered a proposal to minimize the overall damage that will be inflicted upon the U.S. Army’s aviation branch by cutbacks through sequestration (the enemy), and proactively set out a course that they believe would allow it to emerge in potentially better shape than when the battle was joined. Yes, there would be casualties. None more respected that the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior that has served its country well, and been manned and maintained for years by people who will continue to have the respect of their peers long after it has gone. Naturally those connected to the Kiowa Warrior will feel protective toward it due to its history of continuous service since its introduction in May 1969 – an incredible run of 45 years. But the Army has been trying to replace it since the mid-1980s when Bell’s D-292 and Sikorsky’s S-75 competed as all-composite airframes as part of a push toward advancing the concept of Light Helicopter Experimental Program (LHX). The Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche was the eventual result, but the program was cancelled due to excessive cost in 2004, as was its successor, the Bell ARH-70 Arapaho, in 2008.
No successor to the OH-58 is planned either, as Mangum’s team proposes to put the Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) on indefinite hold, turning to the Apache attack helicopter fleet supported by unmanned systems to fill the reconnaissance role for the foreseeable future. But as Mangum reminded his audience during a January 14 presentation at AUSA Army Aviation Symposium and Conference: “reconnaissance is a mission; it is not platform specific.”
With an exit from Afghanistan just around the corner, the urgency for a replacement reconnaissance helicopter has been reduced. Sure, in an uncertain world there are potential military challenges to be faced in many areas of the globe. But as Mangum stated, his team looked at the problem from all angles and the one thing they did not want – was not to have a plan. The idea of not being in control of any given situation – including the implementation of defense cuts – is not something a special forces commander (ex-160th SOAR) would ever let happen.
There is also the prospect of an eventual replacement in Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Light; a category under the current main thrust of the U.S. Army’s stated goal to develop an FVL (Medium) – in which both Bell Helicopter and the Boeing-Sikorsky partnership are gathering momentum. With the abrupt demise of the AAS now, who would bet against a refocus on FVL Light to fill this gap should the finances improve, perhaps in the 2020s? Neither will the Army Reserve be happy with the proposal to take all of their Apaches away and put them back into the active component. But when the national strategic stance changes, and a force that has been used to continual deployment abroad comes (or most of it), the structure has to reform. The decision to take 100 UH-72 Lakotas from the active force and a similar number from the National Guard is a sensible move, although again a loss to those who have praised it since its on-time, on-cost introduction. With such a modern active component of digitally equipped aircraft, not having ab initio pilots trained on a digital twin-engine aircraft makes no sense in the following years, particularly when home-based flying hours are going to be around 10.7 hours per crew per month – even less in the Reserves.
This is a plan of compromises, but there is clearly no right decision for everyone. The hard fact is that the military across all services is faced with reduction. Less helicopters, fewer aircraft, a shrinking Navy. Nobody wants to see their nation weaker – and strength is about retaining the most effective of your capabilities, and using what you have to best advantage until more funds allow rebuilding and strengthening.
This is a new war that demands downsizing and transformation. The key is to manage change while reshaping to fight the next battle the best way you can.