PARIS — GENERALS, WE ARE OFTEN told, spend too much time preparing for the last war rather than the next one, and this is why they have so much trouble winning current ones. Alas, as ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq prove, the truth is even worse: commanders, at the bidding of politicians, are so desperate to find cheap fixes for their budget woes that they willingly overlook even the most obvious lessons from the past.
A case in point is the "now you see it, now you don’t" transport helicopter. Made famous by airmobile operations in Vietnam, where they proved indispensable a full 40 years ago, transport helicopters then disappeared as spending priorities, as funds earmarked for them were shifted to attack helicopters, to futuristic programs like the Osprey, or to other services. As a result, the U.S. military is still operating the CH-46s, CH-47s and CH-53s that it bought in the 1960s.
In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, many Western countries axed their transport helicopter fleets to save money: Canada went further than most, first by cancelling a contract to buy 44 EH101s (which it was forced to buy again a decade later) and then by selling off its Chinooks to the Dutch.
Britain did little better, letting its Puma fleet wither on the procurement vine while buying a handful of EH101s for battlefield transport and a half dozen Chinooks, which are now in storage because they are not airworthy, for its special forces. And the list goes on and on. It is only now that France — a pioneer in airmobility — and Germany will begin updating their transport/utility helicopter fleets with the NH90, which may be followed in a decade or two by the future Heavy Transport Helicopter if that project ever gets off the ground.
Lack of transport helicopters led to big problems when Western countries sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, where the threat to ground convoys from roadside bombs is so great that commanders find it safer — and faster — to use helicopters instead of trucks. The problem is that there are not enough helicopters to go round, so troops ride in vulnerable vehicles as the U.S. Marines are forced to refurbish retired CH-53 airframes and Canada is reduced to begging for helicopter lift from its allies.
Now, of course, Canada has again made an about-turn, and in June said it had budgeted C$4.7 billion to buy 16 large transport helicopters. But none are available, and will not be for a few years, as production lines are working full time to fulfill existing orders.
Other governments are even slower in reacting. British troops have taken their requests for more helicopters public because their political masters turned a deaf ear to previous requests made through channels.
The latest call was issued by Brigadier Ed Butler, who publicly called for more Chinooks in response to a promise by Prime Minister Tony Blair of whatever extra resources were needed, the BBC reported in early October. Butler, the outgoing British commander in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, said helicopters had always been his top priority, but, characteristically, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said that it was not aware of any specific request for extra helicopters from him.
Yet, the need for helicopters has been apparent to all ever since Osama bin Laden escaped capture by riding off on his moped, leaving his foot-borne pursuers in the dust. Two years ago, Britain’s National Audit Office issued a stinging report saying that British forces faced a 38-percent shortfall in helicopter support. All to no avail.
While politicians are more concerned with their reelection than with supporting their combat troops, they happily continue to waste money on gee-whiz fighters at $180 million a pop or $1-billion destroyers to rule the waves. Meanwhile, their soldiers are being killed because they have to ride in unprotected vehicles instead of being safely helicoptered to destination.
Only the wily Dutch among NATO countries can be proud of their steadfast commitment to airmobility ever since they decided, in 1991-92, that helicopters would be more useful than tanks in the post-Cold War world. They not only created an airmobile brigade equipped with Cougars and Apaches; they also bought those same Chinooks that Canada was so eager to sell off, and in late September said they would order another nine, of the latest CH-47F version. And Dutch helicopters are not idling at home, either, but are being widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan where, to some extent, they make up for the shortcomings of their NATO allies.
It’s time for those same allies, especially in Europe, to get as serious about transport helicopters as they have been about outdated, multi-billion euro weapon programs that will have no real justification once, and if, they eventually enter service.