ATLANTA — The US Army wants to find the right balance between when it uses soldier and contract maintainers for its fleet of aircraft, but right now the levels are "out of balance," according to the new Army Aviation and Missile Life Cycle Management Command (AMCOM) leader.

"I think we are contractor heavy," Brig. Gen. Doug Gabram said at the Army Aviation Association of America's Mission Solutions Summit on Friday.

"I think we've lost the maintenance management skills of our soldiers," Gabram said.

The reason for this is mainly due to deploying aviation units to Iraq and Afghanistan without resident soldier maintenance staff, Gabram explained. Contractors are used instead, which causes the ability for soldiers to maintain their own aircraft in a war zone to atrophy.

"I think contractors augment, but they don't replace basic availability," Gabram said. "We have to, within the Army, we have to get back to that balance and I think we are a little bit out of balance and we will do our part to do that."

Brig. Gen. Bob Marion, the Army's aviation program executive officer, explained at AAAA the reliance on contract maintenance has grown because of force management level requirements.

"We have restrictions on how many soldiers can actually deploy and so in many cases, not just maintenance, we've had contractors performing certain functions when we deploy, maintenance being one of them, because we had limitations on the number of soldiers we could have in theater," Marion said. "So when we possibly could, we would use a contractor to perform specific functions and not take a soldier to do it."

But now that the Army has had a chance to sit back and reflect on the outcomes of those decisions, Marion noted, and scaling back the use of contractors will be important in the future.

And leaving soldier maintainers — often called green-suit maintainers — back at home station "erodes the ability of our maintenance teams to have the real world experience of maintaining aircraft in a combat environment, plus it's expensive to maintain a contractor work force in theater," Marion said.

Relying too heavily on contractors is also incongruous to the Army Operating Concept that requires the Army to be more expeditionary.

"We still have requirements to go places all around this globe and we might not be falling in on a [Forward Operating Base] that's been there for 10 years, that's got a really nice chow hall and really nice showers," Marion said. "You might be out in the middle of nowhere and you might not be able to take contractors with you and so we need to have soldiers, maintenance soldiers, as part of our combat operations teams who have had that experience and not learning from scratch the first time they show up in the middle of nowhere."

But the Army can't completely eliminate contract maintenance. "As we start to go back to more green suit maintenance, we want to make sure a certain level of capability from a contractor perspective is there in case we need to surge at any point," Col. Todd Royar, the AMCOM chief of staff, said at AAAA.

And Col. Andy Gignilliat, the military deputy for the Aviation and Missile Command Logistics Center, said, "There's a necessary role for contractors, it's pretty much always been a necessary role, but it's understanding the level and mix of mission functions and purpose of contractors that we have to balance."

Twitter: @JenJudson