WASHINGTON — The US Army continues to struggle to get all of its pilots the flying hours they need for training stateside due to budgetary constraints and amid the high operational tempo of rotary wing units, Maj. Gen. Michael Lundy, the Army's Aviation Center of Excellence commander, said.
The flying-hour backlog has been a continuous problem as the defense budget gets squeezed. In 2013, as sequestration reared its ugly head, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno was worried about the flying hour program, stating the service would need to cut approximately 37,000 flight hours and 500 training positions from Fort Rucker, Alabama.
The Army was later given more spending flexibility and was able to restore the flight training program.
But keeping up with flight hours needed to maintain proficiency remains a difficult task.
"We are flying at lower rates than we need to be able to maintain the level of proficiency that we need to operate really across the globe," Lundy said. "And we are expecting Army aviation today at an optempo that really is higher than what we saw even during the  surge [in Iraq] if you look at mission tempo perspective."
And proficiency needs to be at an even higher level now that pilots are looking at operating in complex decisive action and combined arms operations and not just counter-insurgency operations, according to Lundy.
So the Army is taking "a holistic look at aviation flying hours," he added.
Flying hours must be increased across the active, Guard and Reserve forces, Lundy noted, and so the Army has pulled together a team led by Lt. Gen. Kevin Mangum, deputy commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command, on how the service can increase proficiency and flying hours across the force.
Another area where home-station training needs to be improved, Lundy noted, is developing a way for air and ground units to train better together. "We spend a lot of time focused on trying to develop air-to-ground aviation ranges. We've got a number of them that are out there at installations but we are not complete yet."
The Army continues to focus on building the right range complexes to be able to foster better air-to-ground operations training, Lundy said.
Another promising training enterprise in development now is the Synthetic Training Environment and Lundy said Army aviation will be integrated into that future training environment.
"That is a key area and we've made a lot of progress on how we are getting after simulations," he added.
The Synthetic Training Environment (STE) "will be a new approach," Maj. Gen. Mark O'Neil, deputy commanding general for training at the Combined Arms Center, said at the same forum. "It will converge the current virtual constructive and gaming environments into a single synthetic environment."
The system will use one geospatial world terrain, similar to Google Earth, that will enable soldiers to train through cloud technology on a common operating environment over the Army Enterprise Network, O'Neil said.
"We are working closely with the Aviation Center of Excellence in determining how we best fight and train aviation collective training in the future synthetic training environment," he added.
But while simulation can enhance flight training, it will never be the answer to make up for flying hour shortages, Army leaders warned.
But for live individual and collective flying hours, "we still need those in addition to simulation. Simulation is not going to have us come back and say we need a major reduction in our flying hour program," Francis said.
Col. J. Ray Davis, the division chief of Army National Guard Aviation and Safety, added that taking advantage of reserve components more for training would help meet needs. "In a lot of cases there are other services that are literally in our backyard, where we share a common facility. We need to take advantage of that to leverage the joint training environment," he said.
Even with some solutions to dealing with home station training challenges in the works, Lundy warned, "I really do think ultimately the real challenge that we are going to have at home station training is the fact that our missions have grown so high across the branch that we are consuming readiness faster than we can generate it."
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.