WASHINGTON — Should Congress pass a continuing resolution (CR) instead of a fully approved fiscal 2017 defense budget, aviation training at higher echelons — which is key for readiness — could slip, according to Lt. Gen. Kevin Mangum, the deputy commanding general for the US Army's Training and Doctrine Command.
Army aviation training for a fully ready-to-fight force is already on the razor's edge of assuming so much risk that lives could be at stake more regularly down the road. The service is trying to recover from painful cuts to its training capacity over the past several years but has yet to get back to a desirable state of readiness.
"We've programmed to kick-start our readiness recovery with increased flight hours ... to start the journey from platoon-level collective readiness to company-level collective readiness," Mangum said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on aviation readiness Wednesday. "We would remain at platoon-level readiness funding into the CR."
Mangum equated aviation as a "fragile ecosystem," saying that in order to keep it healthy, "all the requisite parts must be nourished routinely."
What the Army cannot do is continue to just resource provide for aviation units at platoon- or company-level readiness and expect those same units to operate in environments that require battalion-level proficiency and flight skills, Mangum added.
"In a nutshell, we need to resource Army aviation units to train to battalion-level proficiency to keep the ecosystem in balance. This will allow our units to become proficient in those collective tasks required to operate at higher threat levels against peer or near-peer adversaries," Mangum said. Battalion-level collective proficiency also means "more robust" leader development will occur, he added.
Moreover, not getting the needed training hours required to be proficient could cause a spike in aviation accidents in the future.
While the number of Class A accidents in aviation — the category that includes loss of life or extensive damage to equipment — have not risen over the past decade across the services, there could be a spike in aviation accidents down the road that could be directly correlated to a lack of maintenance training or pilot training, service leaders stressed at the hearing.
Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the Marine Corps' deputy commandant for aviation, said that pilots are getting far less training hours — about half of what he got as a rookie pilot.
A smaller number of flight hours could cause a rise in accidents, whether fatal, serious or minor, down the road, Davis said, adding it may not be obvious right away that the lack of training is to blame, but a stronger correlation might be made several years from now.
The Army is also having difficulty keeping up aviation maintenance proficiency, Mangum said during the hearing, a problem that has plagued the force especially over the last few years.
But in that case, the Army's hands are somewhat tied because there remain issues getting green-suit maintainers deployed with the rest of their unit due to restrictions placed on how many soldiers can actually deploy and, in many cases, the Army has had to send contractors in their place due to limitations on the number of soldiers allowed in a theater.
The Army Aviation and Missile Life Cycle Management Command chief, Brig. Gen. Doug Gabram, told Defense News earlier this spring that the balance between using soldier and contract maintainers is out of whack and is too contractor heavy.
It came as no surprise to hear that contractor and soldier maintainers in Afghanistan remain out of balance due to force management level requirements imposed by the White House and the costly investment of sending contractors to do soldiers' jobs.
Mangum said in 2015, a combat aviation brigade — normally comprised of 2,800 soldiers — deployed to Afghanistan with 800 troops, leaving most of the maintainers behind.
HASC chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, teased the issue out further by asking Mangum what the maintainers do when the rest of the unit is not at its home station.
"They're not doing a whole lot of aviation maintenance," Mangum replied. "We're building a deficit of experience and expertise in our formations as a result."
Moreover, it's not cheaper to send contractors to theater than maintainers indigenous to the unit.
"We're paying around $100 million this year for contractors in Afghanistan," Mangum said. "It costs more."
Thornberry asked: "And that practice that started in fiscal 2015 continues today?"
Mangum replied: "Yes, sir."