Roots of Crisis in Army Aviation An Old Fart Aviator Sounds Off

January 26, 2000

Comment: #342 

Discussion Thread:   #s 288 (acronym corrections re: 289 & 296) and 280


[1] Ron Laurenzo, "Army Aviation In 'Crisis', General Says," Defense Week, January 18, 2000.

[2] Marc Strass, ARMY SEES FLIGHT SCHOOL 21 AS FIX FOR TASK FORCE HAWK WOES, Defense Daily, 20 January 2000

[3] By Dana Priest, "Army's Apache Helicopter Rendered Impotent In Kosovo" Washington Post, December 29, 1999, Pg. 1

Task Force Hawk stands as a howling metaphor of an Army in crisis: an army that is (1) too heavy to deploy in a timely manner, (2) too technically complex to adapt to changing conditions, (3) has too many officers, but is (4) undermanned, under-trained, and equipped with aging equipment, and is (5) designed to fight the tank-heavy forces of a threat that no longer exists in a second generation war of attrition on the North German plain.

For new readers, Task Force Hawk was the code name given to the deployment of a battalion of 24 Apache Helicopters from Germany to Albania last April. The movement also included a force protection package of armored vehicles, rocket launchers, infantry, as well as enough spare parts and maintenance personnel to support 48 Apache's. TF Hawk was also rank heavy, to put it mildly its offensive teeth of only 24 Apaches was commanded by a Lt Colonel, but it was Brigade(-) level task force commanded by a one star general, and the entire deployment was glued together under a corps bureaucracy commanded by a three-star general (presumably with his court of supporting generals).

It took one month, half a billion dollars, and 550 C-17 sorties to move 10,300 pieces of equipment and a corps headquarters to Albania. Unit cohesion suffered because pilots, maintenance personnel, and spare parts had to be robbed from other units. Even so, the pilots arrived untrained for night flying in Albania's steep mountain terrain.

By the time the war was over, the Army had crashed 2 Apache helicopters, (1 broke down in transit in Italy and 2 crashed on training missions in Albania), lost two men, and never flew a combat mission, because the generals in Washington feared they would be blown out of the sky by air defense guns and hand-held heat-seeking rockets.

Bear in mind, the trials and tribulations of Task Force Hawk did not reflect teething problems of a new weapon as much as the un-workability of an excessively complex, MATURE system that requires the attendance of a huge support tail. The Apache attack helicopter began development in the 1970s (really in the 1960s with the flawed Cheyenne program) and was purchased and fielded in the 1980s at a cost of over $15 billion.

Dana Priest's excellent report in the Washington Post [Reference #3] portrays this debacle from the top-down perspective so popular among the courtiers and wonks in Versailles on the Potomac. Her god's eye view compliments the worm's eye view issued by Brig Gen Dick Cody, commander of TF Hawk, in his scathing after-action email report issued last June, which, readers may recall, spelled out a litany of T.F. Hawk's problems from the detailed microscopic perspective, with particular emphasis on the impact of the air crew shortages and training shortfalls. [New readers will find Cody's report as Reference #3 to Comment #288; see also the related threads].

Not surprisingly this humiliating episode put the Army's leadership in Panic City.

Two weeks ago, for example, Lt. Gen. Johnny Riggs, commander of the First United States Army, told a symposium sponsored by the Association of the U. S. Army that aviation is "in a crisis." He attributed the crisis to three causes: (1) budget shortfalls that are delaying modernization, particularly with night vision technologies, (2) aging equipment that is difficult and costly to maintain (also, by implication, a budgetary issue), and (3) a generation of inadequately trained junior officers who lack the experience to grow into leadership roles. Riggs said the Army needs to improve aircrew training across the board, from flight schools to combat units, and it needs to keep officers in the combat arms longer with fewer staff assignments. He also stressed that the Army needs to modernize its aircraft. Riggs, in effect, called for higher budgets, when he said he hoped the Army will not do "too little too late" in the upcoming budget battle. [Reference #1].

The comment about keeping officers in cockpits is a particularly telling one. Pilots are trying to get out of flying jobs [some are even turning down company-level command billets] and into staff jobs for a variety of reasons including career advancement, avoidance the career-ruining problems associated with the Army's zero defects culture, and to spend more time with families. Too many pilots are also leaving the service. [Reference #1 does not indicate that Riggs made any comments about the pilot retention problem, which is particularly serious in the Apache units.]

Reference #2 adds additional insight into how the Army, collectively, thinks its should attack the training side of the aviation crisis: the Army plans a new initiative, called Flight School 21. The idea is to (1) increase flying hours and (2) buy new, more complex simulators to expose pilots to a greater variety of environmental circumstances.

One serious limitation on training realism is the limited number of training ranges. These limitations force the pilots fly over the same terrain year after year. The Army believes increased simulation, in the form of the Aviation Combined Arms Tactical Trainer-Aviation Reconfigurable Manned Simulator (AVCATT-A), will pump up variety of training and thereby help to solve the problem caused by excessive familiarity with a limited number of scenarios. But according to Reference #2, the AVCATT-A is currently only capable of displaying highly accurate terrain simulations at two training bases [National Training Center (NTC) at Ft. Irwin and Ft. Hood] where the pilots are already familiar with the terrain. The simulation of NTC is particularly troubling, because it will increase the temptation for ambitious, zero-defect-oriented milcrats to do excessive rehearsals prior to a unit training rotation so they will score high enough in the exercise to move into a lucrative staff job. Later this year, however, the Army says it will also have simulations for Kovoso [where it's leaders just showed us they were afraid to risk Apaches] and Korea.

The Army's simplistic plan raises some serous questions: Will more money for modernization, simulation, and flying hours pull the Army's aviation forces out of the crisis? Or are more fundamental reforms needed?

To gain some insight into these questions, I asked a retired army aviator with long experience to give me his analysis of this issue.

He prefers anonymity (he now works for a defense contractor who might object to his patriotism), so at his request, he will be referred to as the Old Fart Aviator. What follows is the Old Fart's assessment of the Army's aviation crisis. Any parenthetical remarks by me will be enclosed in [ ]'s.

-----[email from Old Fart Aviator]-----------

Chuck .. I do have some problems with this article [in the Washington Post, Reference #3]. The problem cited was neither the aircraft nor the unit's pilots. Instead it focused on a bunch of wuss leaders who feared we would lose some aircraft. No doubt we would have, too. That happens in war. I think what we have is an article that highlights the loss of the warrior ethic in our military leadership. How sad.

Enough said, now let me describe my response to the larger question in three parts.

Part I: More money does not solve retention, readiness or proficiency shortcomings.

To solve the Army retention problem, the senior leadership marched on Congress to get a long overdue pay raise for service members. Yet, most active duty soldiers are unanimous that the reason they are leaving is not salary. Even after the pay raise, junior enlisted soldiers will still be paid a wage less than they would make flipping burgers. That extra $10 a month that junior solder will receive does not address the heart of the retention and readiness issues [at the lower ranks, pay is not much of an issue for officers]. A Field Artillery Major wrote Gen Reimer last year that retention problems are really about not having the tools, the training, or the budget to do the job, the constant deployments, and the eerie feeling that the senior leadership is in a different Army. These are the problems that are really driving soldiers out. That FA Major was right in his analysis, yet we threw money at the problem, and failed to address the real issues that vex Army retention and readiness.

If increased military budgets do appear as the policies of current presidential candidates suggest, more money by itself, is not going to guarantee a fix. That is because Congress really prefers to increase defense budgets to benefit their contractor constituents who build new systems. Increasing funding for unit operations and training does not translate well to voter support at reelection time. Again, more money will be thrown at the problem. When increased military budgets eventually trickle down to buy spare parts, flight hours, and training, it rarely is spent any smarter than it was the year before. In fact, the existing system precludes that and encourages waste.

More of everything results in more waste of everything. Units and acquisition officers are faced with either using it or having it subtracted from next year's budget allocation. That is why, when budgets were flush, the units would fire off all the unused ammo after they finished training. Turning it in or storing opened ammunition boxes is a nightmare and ammunition folks will tell you it is cheaper to buy it again than repackage and store it. Besides, no sane commander wants to see the ammunition budget decremented next year. Of course, recent stories from the field indicate this problem has been solved by not having adequate ammunition to fire for qualification in the first place. However, with increased budgets and adequate ammunition we will again see a return to the problems of too much ammo. The solution? We have a "mad minute" on the range.

The "use it or lose it syndrome" is alive and well in the acquisition business too . Despite severe cutbacks in Research & Development, Procurement and Operating funds the Program Managers [PM's] often find that at the end of the year they have funds that they have been unable to obligate or are expiring. They know this money will be taken away from them. The zany rules from Congress regarding different money types, and year of life, conspire to challenge the best PM's into get their funding obligated or to suffer the sin of losing funding they could have spent. While the PM is able often to use that funding for his program, you frequently see bizarre results, such as an Aviation PM spending end of year funding on unneeded features on obsolete aircraft (Re: 13 Sep 99 Aviation Week Article - Targeting System Upgrade To Ready Army Cobras for Hellfire).

That is also why you see government offices spending the last of their office supply budget at Office Depot for things they really don't need at the end of each fiscal year. The existing system penalizes those who fail to spend our tax dollar. There is no greater sin than turning in unused money. If you do not spend it, Congress will decide you don't need as much next year.

What a nutty system.

When budgets do increase it is imperative, Gen. Shinseki [the new Army Chief] addresses the way we spend the "more" when it arrives in addition to his effort to kill the sacred cows of "the way is has always been done." Here too, we need innovative change to the way we have always operated.

More ammo, more flight hours, more spares by themselves, will not fix the problems of readiness or retention. Recent press coverage of the woes of Task Force Hawk may lead some to believe we just need to spend more to get more flight time (and the spares, fuel, ammo). They believe more flight time will remedy the lack of proficiency BG Cody highlighted to Congress in respect to the AH-64 Apaches sent to Albania during our attacks on Yugoslavia.

It is not that simple. The problems of retention, empty operator seats (cockpits), and lack of mission proficiency are not unique to Army Aviation. They are pandemic throughout the military force and are not going to be fixed with simply a liberal application of increased funding. The proficiency problems that plague Army Aviation are not unique to the Army. However, they provide a good example of why opening the funding faucet does not translate to achieving mission proficiency which seems to be at the heart of the readiness and retention problem.

More money to increase flight hours for Army Aviators would be a start to solving the proficiency problems that plague units today. But, it is not a fix.

More money is just a band-aid, because an across-the-board increase would fall under the Law of Diminishing Utility. There are too many other components of mission proficiency in training aviators that WILL NOT be fixed by a simple increase in flight time. I suspect the same point can be made for tankers, Warthog drivers, and sailors too.

Part II: More Money/flight hours do not insure mission proficiency.

What does a flight hour cost? The cost of flight hours as estimated by the US Army Cost and Economic Activity (CEAC) is shown below. These costs are no doubt cheap compared to what an Air Force, Marine, or Navy jet aircraft costs per flight hour, but they provide an idea what "more money" can buy in terms of Army helicopter flight hours.

  • AH-1S Cobra $1,569 - $1,757

  • AH-64A Apache $3,454 - $3,756

  • CH-47D Chinook $2,403 - $2,723

  • OH-58A/C Kiowa $434 - $594

  • OH-58D Kiowa Warrior $1,399 - $1,622

  • UH-1H Iroquois $651 - $833

  • UH-60A Blackhawk $2,419 - $2,668

  • UH-60L Blackhawk $1,742 - $1,964

Of course, flight hours come in different flavors. Blue Sky aviators (jet jocks) don't need the same support facilities as Army Helo types to train effectively. The AF pilot takes off and trains by working in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enroute structure that is similar to the combat flight direction he gets now, he does some low level runs in upstate NY or in the desert in Nevada, and goes home and pops a beer (some bias here).

In contrast, to get a good return on that flight training hour, the Army chopper crew needs a place to fly a simulated deep attack, scout, fly NOE (Nap of the Earth), fly different seat positions, use NVG's [night vision goggles], squirt the laser, get painted with threat systems, react to the threat, and deliver ordnance and then go home. Ideally, he could do it at home station.

The fact that the Apache units in Albania had to do anything more than a local area familiarization before they were good to go, attests to the systemic training deficiency Army Aviation faces. In Germany, for example, local flight restrictions preclude most useful training. A simple increase in flying hours would have created pilots more flight proficient, but not mission proficient unless they can go out and do the sorts of tasks cited. Flight hours not spent performing war fighting tasks do not get you an increase in mission proficiency for each flight hour.

The problem is that about the only place they can really do that is at the CTC's (Combat Training Centers - e.g., NTC, JRTC, CMTC) and even there, the ground oriented training centers don't let Army Aviation really train to it's potential, because they impose all sorts of airspace and other safety constraints on the flyers.

My view is that the ground folks don't really want that to change. The calculus the Apache Longbow brings to the battlefield is [theoretically] so devastating that it kills everyone fast and (simulated) dead guys do not get to train. The obvious problem with that approach is that our arrogance assumes that the "bad guys" will not have systems like Kiowa Warriors and Apache's (or A129-Mongose, AH-2 Rooivalk, or KA-52 Alligators) so we don't really need to train against these systems. We have forgotten the lessons of the "Gray Threat" that vexed us so when Iran turned from friend to foe.

Another reason why more flying hours will not necessarily translate into combat proficiency is that units are lucky to see a training center more than twice a year, and with the peacekeeping mission deployments, the opportunity to train there is often occurs even less often. So where do we do mission training? Not at the home station, not when deployed, and not in brick and mortar simulators that generally have fallen far behind the aircraft's configuration because of lack of funding.

Today, the challenge of achieving mission type training is practically unattainable, no matter how dedicated the commander or the unit's soldiers may be. The training system infrastructure is such that after you leave the CTC [combat training center], your war fighting proficiency degrades. There is little opportunity to perform mission type tasks at home station. Laser, Electronic Warfare, and ordnance restrictions just don't let it happen.

Home station training is the most attractive solution. It is close to home, and you don't fly forever to get to your training area, unless you are in some Guard or Reserve units away from training areas. Today, home stations offer only limited opportunity for training due to airspace, laser and impact area restrictions.

Some really exciting and available systems do permit limited home station training. I understand the 21st Cav is using one at Ft. Hood (live simulation) to support their training. Reportedly the unit went out and bought the system themselves, avoiding the delays and overhead of working with an AMC (Army Material Command) or PEO (Program Executive Officer) developer. Until aviation can train as they fight, near where they live, I question whether any increase in flight hours would really add to the proficiency bottom line very much.

Part III: Who speaks for the user?

Without an investment in training technology, an increase in available flight hours would have only limited utility. In order to get aviation home station training someone has to speak for the user. Today the "user reps" at the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) don't do that very well.

Training technology investment is an area that is under the TRADOC and Simulation Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM) AOR (Area of Responsibility). Unfortunately, neither looks out very well for the real users flying the aircraft in the units. Both focus on supporting the TRADOC school system training requirements and the combat training centers (CTCs). When a system has a TRADOC System Manager (TSM) that is not the case, but as new systems mature and enter the field forces, the TSM is eliminated and the responsibility falls to the TRADOC School Combat Development (CD) activity.

The CD folks are too system development oriented to be capable of supporting fielded units. No one really speaks for the TOE (e.g. field units) folks. The Commanders at the TRADOC branch schools will tell you they do, but if that is the case, they need to see how well they have been doing. Bear in mind, those folks would take umbrage at my perspective.

Nevertheless, if you look at aviation training in the units and their ability to train at their home stations, it's clear. Take a look at what deployed units can take with them when they sojourn off to Bosnia and my view is reinforced. When units deploy, whatever combat proficiency they had obtained, degrades fast when performing Operations other than War (OOTW) roles. Where are the deployable training systems that got so much attention after Desert Storm? I suspect they have fallen off the lists of "must do's" and are languishing on someone's list of Unfunded Requirements.

The solution is not clear either.

No "in-the-box" solution is going to fix it. Some of the Aviation Program/Project Managers (PMs) do a good job supporting training as they field their systems. But when the systems are handed off to the operational units, the organization or individual who has fiscal responsibility to support those systems becomes unclear.

When a PM's system transitions to "out of production", the training system support tends to fall on the units who are trying to support their TOE [Table of Operational Equipment] systems with their funding. The former PM's system training devices become illegitimate children over time. STRICOM doesn't claim them, and the PM's are no longer able to afford to support them.

A radical alternative would be to put training technology development and acquisition in the direct hands of the major user commands (e.g. FORSCOM). Take it out of the Army Material Command/Program Executive Office (AMC/PEO) structure and mirror what Special Operations Command (SOCOM) does now.

But realistically, given the fact that the acquisition folks have eaten their young in recent years, the Army cannot support that, so an alternative might be to create a PEO [program executive office] for fielded units, with their own funding lines, whose SOLE customers are the TOE units.

This new PEO function [the PEO for operational units] would not work for the Service Acquisition Executive, nor the Deputy Chief of Staff-Operations (DCSOPS), but would work DIRECTLY for the Chief of Staff of the Army.

The PEO for operational units would be responsible for getting the funding and the fixes to the chronic issues that plague our fielded systems. He would be the real "user rep" and his office would be manned primarily with folks wearing uniforms. Now I realize that won't be a popular idea since Gen Shinseki is busy stripping major commands to fill empty slots in units, but I don't see any other way to achieve a way for users to get their voices heard. And if the users are not heard, it will be impossible to satisfy their training and technical needs. "Reforms" will never get out of the "noise level" as they percolate from the unit to their higher command to AMC/PEO.

Is such a change important? Well, remember, BG Cody highlighted a number of technical problems with Apache that were NOT even on the Apache PM's wish list, because of the inability of users to get their needs heard.

There may be better ideas, but one thing is clear, and Cody reinforced it, what we do now, does not work very well.

The "real users" voice has too hard a time being heard over the din of modernization. In the case of Aviation, the drumbeat of Comanche is drowning out the users. A PEO for Operational Units [PEO-OU] would be the place where guys like Cody would go for solutions to their problems.

Perhaps BG Cody ought to be the first such PEO. He would quickly see that the problems he cited are not unique to aviation, but with his user orientation and the experience he gained doing "stuff" like that at Ft. Eustis, he would be my first choice.

But in the end, the BLAME also has to fall on the folks who climb Capital Hill to get budgets. They mouth the right words about real needs to people who don't see a return except in terms of creating jobs for their home districts defense contractors. Those who talk to the congressional staffers fail to articulate their need very well and, with a few exceptions, these staffers have little understanding of all the interrelationships affecting this complex phenomenon. Nevertheless, they are the people who write the language and explain the nuances to their members.

My experience is that these staffers generally want to do the smart thing with our tax dollars. We just have not been able to explain that to them, except in terms of more procurements of end items. We in the military have sold our soul when we let them decide we needed more systems before we fix the ones we do have.

No doubt our politicians will pat themselves on the back as they pump in more F-15s to "fix the force". But, by doing "business as usual," and taking the "more money approach", they are guaranteeing the "No More Task Force Smiths" is a hollow promise. [Task Force Smith was a army unit that failed miserably at the beginning of the Korean war because its soldiers were not ready for the reality of combat.]

Until a sea state change to spend smarter occurs on the Hill and in the Pentagon, we will see more and more "off target" solutions that make it all worse, not better.

-----[End email from Old Fart Aviator]-----------

I do not know enough about the Army bureaucracy to pass a judgment on the Old Fart's specific recommendations, but one thing is clear, a plan that is premised on the assumption it can solve even a small part of the problems described above by simply throwing money at increased flying hours, more simulators, and "modernization," is not going to resolve the crisis. More fundamental assessments along the more comprehensive lines suggested by the Old Fart are the key to identifying the real reforms that the Army so urgently needs if it is to avoid another Task Force Hawk, or even worse, a newer version of Task Force Smith.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]