Tuesday, January 24, 2012

DoD Strategy, Army Reset Should Bolster Helo, Drone Budgets

One lesson the Army has taken to heart from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the value -- and often the necessity -- of aviation to soldiers fighting on the ground. This is one reason that, even as the Army shrinks by a reported 80,000 or more troops under President Obama's new military strategy, and even as defense spending is cut at least $487 billion over the next decade, Army aviation won't get cut much.

"If you have fewer troops, you need to move them quicker and more safely, given the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) threat," reasons retired Maj. Gen. Andy Andreson, who ran the Army's UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter program in the early 1980s and then the RAH-66 Comanche attack helicopter project, which was canceled well after he retired.

The Obama administration's new strategic guidance makes it pretty clear that the Army and Marines will need substantial helicopter and drone fleets. "Our ground forces will be responsive and capitalize on balanced lift, presence, and prepositioning to maintain the agility needed to remain prepared for the several areas in which such conflicts could occur," the guidance asserts. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made the case more eloquently, noting that U.S. forces would be "smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced." Agile, flexible and ready would seem a pretty powerful argument in favor of a robust Army aviation capability.

A vivid illustration of why Army aviation is so valued, and stretched painfully thin at times, aired Sept. 20 on the CBS Evening News. Pentagon correspondent David Martin's powerful report shows the last moments of a soldier who died in Afghanistan last September after being wounded by an IED. His death was blamed on the lack of an armed helicopter to escort the unarmed medevac chopper needed to get him to treatment within the so-called Golden Hour. As Martin noted, however, "Today in Afghanistan, a wounded soldier stands a 92 percent chance of surviving -- the highest rate of any war."

A primary reason for that survival rate is helicopters, which have saved countless lives in other ways as well, from providing air cover for troops in contact with the enemy and convoys in danger of being ambushed to transporting soldiers and supplies without the risk of hitting a roadside bomb.

While Army aviation primarily means helicopters, ground commanders also have come to rely during the wars of the past 10 years on the growing fleet of unmanned aerial systems (UAS).