Army Aviation Making Some Hard Bargains

The quandary faced by Army planners operating under a series of Continuing Resolution funding bills that keeps the Pentagon humming–in lieu of an actual defense budget–is a real one, as the Navy pointed out on Friday.

All of the services are feeling the pain, however. Gen. Robert Cone, commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command told a crowd gathered for an Army aviation summit on Jan. 10 that when it comes to funding the next-generation helicopters that the service needs, “we don’t want to buy too much near-term readiness at the expense of the modernization programs we are dealing with in the long-term…But we also have a challenge in that we cannot accept the level of risk in our near-term readiness that we accepted in the past.”

Coming just hours before Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lamented “a perfect storm of budget uncertainty” that could force the Pentagon absorb an additional $500 billion in cuts over the next decade if Congress and the White House fail to hammer out a deal on the nation’s debt limit by March, Cone’s comments set the tone for the relatively sparse two-day industry conference held at National Harbor, Md.

While no one from industry or the Army predicted disaster, industry leaders were clearly concerned. Sam Mehta, president of Sikorky Military Systems said that while large defense companies like his would be able to weather whatever budgetary storm comes his way, his biggest worry is about the health of the industrial base, and whether or not small and medium companies that manufacture the thousands of smaller parts that defense giants rely heavily upon are “making the investments in upgrading their factories and hiring people and investing in training.”

Defense companies are fighting with other industries for talent and marketspace, he said, and recruiting talented workers is being hurt by the fiscal cliff and sequestration drama that has been playing out on Capitol Hill over the past year. “Every time they turn on the news and every time they see a dysfunction and lack of predictability and investment, I think that makes them a little less willing to take that risk.”

Steve Mundt, VP of business development at EADS North America added that investors are reluctant to put money into an uncertain market, and that “companies still want to invest but without someplace for that money to go they’ll look for other markets.”

While the Army continues the debate over the merits of launching a new Armed Aerial Scout program as opposed to modernizing its existing Kiowa Warrior fleet, Gen. Cone warned that “the question is, how much can we invest in that platform without taking away from the future?”

While current platforms like the Apache continue to receive upgrades, the operating environment today is significantly more dangerous than it has been in the past due to “a proliferation of low end technologies that is effective against Army aviation,” he continued. The Army needs to invest in capabilities that would be effective in countering guided rockets and laser weapons that future enemies might employ, he said.

Crone added that as the Pentagon shifts is gaze toward the Pacific region, Army aviation will likely be in higher demand, since the need for resupply and lift will be greater over the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean. “We need more responsiveness and increased endurance on station,” he said, adding that “it will be essential for aircraft to operate at greater distances.”

Perhaps reassuringly for his audience, Cone said that “a lot of the inherent risks that we are assuming with a smaller Army, in fact can be mitigated by an investment in aviation as we go to the future.”

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Paul McLeary

McLeary covers national security policies at the White House, Pentagon, the Hill, and State Department.
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