WASHINGTON — Just this year, a UH-60 Black Hawk crashed on a Maryland golf course with one crewman pronounced dead; an entire crew went missing after another Black Hawk crashed into the ocean during a night training mission in Hawaii; and another crashed off the coast of Yemen roughly one week later.
Despite the headlines, the tough fiscal environment, atrophied maintenance skills and unexecuted flight hours, thus far, “have not manifested themselves in aviation mishaps,” Maj. Gen. William Gayler, commander of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, said during a Nov. 9 House Armed Services readiness subcommittee hearing.
The statistics in fiscal year 2017 remain below the five and 10 year mishap averages, “however, we watch them closely and are still concerned,” he added.
“If current trends do continue, however, particularly with reduced flight hour execution or funding and combined with requirements to enter into a high-threat environment, historically we do see a rise in aviation mishaps,” Gayler said.
“Force structure reductions, increased global requirements, funding uncertainty and the requirement to train our forces to a higher level of preparedness raises concerns about the overall future readiness of Army aviation,” he added.
“I think statistically our Class A mishap rates are actually down from a holistic standpoint, which is good,” Brig. Gen. Thomas Todd, the Army’s program executive officer for aviation, told Defense News in a recent interview. But it’s important to continue to drive that number down and the Army is looking at how to handle a fleet that has served for 15 years at a high operational tempo and keep that fleet ready to fight in current and future operations, he said.
Class A mishaps usually involve a fatality or the complete destruction of an aircraft.
“I think what you will see is continued operational capability rates above 80 percent mission capable whether they are at home or abroad,” Todd said.
But keeping aviation units mission capable is getting harder and harder.
Due to the budget and the high demand for aviation assets worldwide, units today are resourced at platoon-level proficiency, “which is sufficient for the counterinsurgency operations that we have been in in the last decade and a half,” Gayler said. “However to fight in an increasingly complex environment against a more capable or near-peer or peer enemy, an aviation unit would be needed to be at a higher level of proficiency at higher echelons.”
The Army’s goal for training flight hours per month per crew is 14.5 hours to reach collective readiness at the Battalion level, Gayler said, but the service’s active component is only getting 10.8 hours while the National Guard is getting 6.4 and the Reserve is getting 7.8.
Gayler said he believed the Army could reach the flight hour goal of 14.5 with the UH-60 and CH-47 Chinook fleets, but there are issues with the AH-64 Apache fleet as its capacity is somewhat limited due to aircraft and pilot availability.
Because the Army has lost some modernization spending power over the last six years, which will continue in the coming years, the service has had to make difficult decision on incrementally modernizing the fleet.
“There is a unique linkage between modernization and readiness,” Gayler said. For example, the Army has to take AH-64s out of the operational units and put them into remanufacturing lines to improve the airframe and that impacts readiness because it is taking the aircraft from operational units that should be training using a full complement of aircraft, he added.
On average, across a 24-ship AH-64 Battalion, “we average between 20 and 21 aircraft in the field because we are forced to incrementally modernize,” Gayler said. “We do have to change that.”
The Army has been actively implementing recommendations made following a holistic review of Army aviation mandated by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley several years ago, according to Gayler.
The Army Training and Doctrine Command’s aviation branch came up with 63 recommendations, Gayler said, of which 30 are completed or there is a plan of action to implement. The remaining recommendations will be completed by the end of FY-18, he said.
“Most significantly really are in areas of doctrine development where we have to align our doctrine better,” he said, “with a potential future battlefield and with the greater Army.”
In training the Army has “made great strides” in adjusting it to bring forces to a higher level of collective training, Gayler said, “which would be necessary on a future, modern battlefield to include [unmanned aircraft systems] integration… and teaming with manned systems.”
The Army is also working to strengthen atrophied maintenance skills.
The reason for this is mainly due to deploying aviation units to Iraq and Afghanistan without resident soldier maintenance staff. Contractors are used instead, which causes the ability for soldiers to maintain their own aircraft in a war zone to atrophy.
“We are focusing very heavily on standardizing a maintainer training program, not only to get all maintainers to requisite standards but also help further increase their maintenance knowledge.”
And the Army has been working to bring its aviation facilities up to snuff after completing can aviation hangar sustainment review that aims to improve facility ratings by 2025.
The Army has nine active-duty installations that have infrastructure needs, Gayler said. But beyond hangar requirements, facilities with repair parts need to be improved to prevent corrosion of those parts, he added.
In FY16, the Army lost $16.2 million worth of repair parts “just due to corrosion alone,” Gayler said.
“We are working very hard to get a steady funding stream and priority to that infrastructure repair at all the installations, but specifically for that corrosion prevention, which was another holistic task force review [recommendation], but we have a lot of work left to do,” he said.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.