Included in the compromise U.S. defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2019 is more than $40 billion aimed squarely at ending the aviation crisis that already has claimed 25 servicemembers’ lives in 2018.
The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act Conference Report authorizes that amount to “begin to overcome the crisis in military aviation by getting more aircraft in the air.”
“In 2017, nearly four times as many members of the military died in training accidents as were killed in combat,” the report states. While just 21 U.S. troops died in combat in 2017, 80 were killed in non-combat aviation mishaps that military leaders have blamed on a lack of readiness, spare parts and modernization funding.
It also calls on the services and Defense Department to undertake an aviation readiness review of programs, platforms and pilot training within a year.
Chaired by the chief of U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command a panel consisting of the commanders of Army Aviation, and Naval Air Forces and the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation will conduct the study.
Civilian oversight of the issue falls to a new eight-member blue-ribbon panel the law established called the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety. Four of its members are presidential appointees and one appointment each goes to the chair and ranking member of both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate armed services committees, according to the conference report.
The commission is charged with conducting a comprehensive study of U.S. military aviation mishaps from fiscal year 2013 to 2018 and delivering a report by March 1, 2020.
In the meantime, the NDAA approves funding for a number of fixes, including increased flying hours, new aircraft and investment in future technologies.
The compromise bill adds $17.8 million for an increase in flying hours. It also increases the services’ spare parts budget by a collective $2.8 billion, $92 million of which is for F-35 Joint Strike Fighter parts alone.
Funding is included to boost rotorcraft acquisition for the Army National guard, including $452.6 million for AH-64E Apache gunships. That is a $168 million increase over the administration’s initial funding request for the aircraft, or an additional six Apaches “in order to address current shortfalls.”
In all, the Army is authorized to buy a total of 18 AH-64E Block IIIB new-build aircraft for $452 million and another 48 Block IIIA remanufactured Apaches for $753 million.
The Army National Guard also gets a boost to its UH-60 Black Hawk budget. The NDAA conference report authorizes an additional $85 million — an additional five UH-60M utility helicopters. That brings the total Black Hawk buy to $1 billion and change for 54 aircraft.
Looking to the future, Congress is mandating that the Army before March 1 provide a report to the armed services committees on the Future Vertical Lift program that seeks a family of next-generation rotorcraft platforms to replace its legacy fleets.