Next week the Lexington Institute and the Center for American Progress will release a study of Army equipment needs after Iraq. The study describes how warfighting systems have been worn out by three years of operations, and offers recommendations for funding repairs or replacements. It finds that the Army has done a good job of maintaining and protecting the deployed force, while also transforming for future challenges. However, it identifies several deficiencies in the current weapons inventory revealed by Iraq, most notably in the areas of force protection, intelligence fusion and communications.
Although the Army is often criticized for its force protection efforts in Iraq, it has responded far better than in any past conflict to emerging battlefield needs. Vehicles have been reinforced, body armor has been refined, and the devilishly difficult challenge of improvised explosive devices has been addressed with a range of tactical and technical innovations. However, there is one facet of force protection where the service’s response is puzzling, and that is aircraft survivability equipment. Despite the loss of over a hundred helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq, the service is only now deploying a modern missile warning system, and proposes to delay fielding effective countermeasures until 2009 or later.
The service concedes there is a problem. On March 29, the director of the Army Aviation Task Force, Brigadier General Stephen Mundt, told an industry symposium, “there are 56 Americans who didn’t come home to their families because we didn’t do it in time.” As reported by Inside the Army, Mundt went on to admit, “they didn’t come home because we didn’t put the stuff on the aircraft soon enough.” It’s refreshing to encounter such candor in a senior officer, but the problem is that the Army still doesn’t have a complete solution for aircraft survivability, due partly to mistakes that continue to this day.
The main mistake in the past was that the service underfunded aircraft survivability equipment, and therefore began Operation Iraqi Freedom with helicopters that couldn’t reliably detect approaching missiles (legacy warning systems generated so many false alarms that pilots turned them off). That mis-step has now been corrected, and by late summer virtually every helicopter in Iraq will carry a sophisticated Common Missile Warning System. But once the missile is detected, aviators still can’t do much besides pop off flares to distract it, and that approach doesn’t work so well with the latest generation of heat-seeking missiles. Newer missiles have sensors that can distinguish between flares and aircraft engines, so they just keep coming.
The answer is to install an infrared countermeasures system that uses low-power lasers to jam missile sensors so they can’t see the target. The Air Force has such a system, which it is installing on C-17 and C-130 transports at a relatively modest cost. The Army doesn’t, because it decided to go with an alternative approach in 1995 that it deemed to involve less risk. Today, the “high-risk” solution is operational on Air Force planes, while the Army’s “low-risk” alternative is at least five years from fielding. That means aviators still have to rely on flares for dealing with a range of attacking missiles. It’s a little hard to understand why the Army is sticking with its current approach when the Air Force’s alternative weighs less, takes up less space, and is readily available. The Army needs to explain the logic of waiting years to provide its airborne troops with adequate protection when an off-the-shelf solution is available today.
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