WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is looking at ways to alleviate a looming crunch at its Fort Rucker, Ala., rotorcraft training school, which could disproportionately impact the ability to train pilots from allied nations.
Options being weighed include contracting with industry or creating regional centers of excellence for rotorcraft training abroad to avoid having real challenges for partner training in the future, a pair of top Army officials said Tuesday.
“We know the number of seats are shrinking, and we know we have customers who are buying our helicopters, so we want to get out in front of that,” Ann Cataldo, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for defense exports and cooperation, told Defense News after a panel at the annual conference of the Association of the United States Army in Washington.
In the past, the number of seats at the rotorcraft school was never an issue for foreign buyers, as there simply weren’t a large number of customers buying American helicopters.
That’s no longer the case. Just in the past year, the State Department OK’d the sale of 48 CH-47F Chinook cargo helicopters to Saudi Arabia, 28 AH-64E Apache helicopters to the UAE, nine Bell 429 light utility helicopters to Slovakia, five CH-47D helicopters to Greece and signed a new training and support agreement with Kuwait for its AH-64D Apache fleet.
With rotorcraft sales on the rise, there will be a wave of foreign students expecting training from the U.S. Army — and the service is trying to get ahead of the issue before it hits.
Cataldo is weighing options with industry and the Army National Guard to “make sure our partners have the training they need,” which could include contractor training in the future. While she declined to put a time frame on any major decision, she said some work is already underway.
“We’re already implementing some of the solutions,” Cataldo said. “The reason you haven’t seen anything catastrophic is because we’ve implemented them. So we’re continuing to implement them based on the needs we project.”
The service is having to play a little bit of catch up because foreign military sales, or FMS, training for pilots was “a bit of a blind spot,” Maj. Gen. Stephen Farmen, commander at U.S. Army Security Assistance Command, said during the panel.
“Now it’s been elevated. Now we’re integrating the FMS process into the normal process, to where we use for active duty and our own Army, to make sure we’re seeing both requirements at the same time and integrating them into the process,” Farmen said. “So I think it’s going to get better and better with respect to being able to accomodate those seats, and clearly, FMS is no longer a blind spot.”
One option both officials said is being considered is creating regional centers of excellence for training of FMS customers, which Farmen described as being in the “exploratory” stages right now.
“Is there a place in the Middle East or the Pacific where we could do regional aviation training and we don’t have to bring all the students to Fort Rucker?” Farmen mused before adding that the topic is “getting exposed; they are getting talked about, and it is a priority that is getting actively working from the top of the department on down.”