Article Published in the Army Magazine
When the Army and the Air Force became separate services after World War Two, one of the most contentious issues was defining a clear postwar identity for Army aviation. Although the institutional separation was authorized by the National Security Act in 1947 and the services agreed to a formal enumeration of their respective functions in the 1948 Key West Agreement, ten years later the Defense Department was still revisiting aviation in an attempt to clarify the Army’s role.
The general thrust of departmental policy was to assign almost all missions for which fixed-wing aircraft were best suited to the Air Force, while encouraging Army aviators to rely on rotary-wing systems to accomplish the remaining missions. In 1957, Defense Secretary Charles Wilson directed that no Army fixed-wing aircraft could exceed an empty weight of 5,000 pounds, while the service’s helicopters could weigh up to ten tons. Not surprisingly, Army aviation came to consist almost entirely of rotary-wing assets, a trend confirmed by the operational demands of the Vietnam War. By the late 1970s the Army had accumulated an inventory of 8,000 helicopters, the biggest and most capable such force ever assembled.
Helicopters revolutionized land warfare, and they continue to shape strategy and tactics today. But like fixed-wing aircraft, rotary-wing systems have certain intrinsic performance limitations that greatly constrain Army operations. The service seldom notices these constraints because it has grown so accustomed to operating within them. When a mission requires flight performance beyond the reach of helicopter technology, the Army calls on the Air Force for support. It’s a division of labor that works reasonably well as long as the Air Force isn’t overwhelmed by competing priorities in the war zone.
But even before the Vietnam conflict confirmed the Army’s reliance on this way of fighting wars, a third type of aircraft had begun to emerge that overcame the limitations of both rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft. It was the tiltrotor, an aircraft designed to combine the vertical maneuverability and hover capability of a helicopter with the long range, high speed and endurance of an airplane. This versatility is achieved by placing oversized propellers (“proprotors”) and their engines at the tips of wings, and enabling the propellers to pivot from vertical to horizontal position while in flight. The tiltrotor thus can ascend straight up like a helicopter, and then convert to cruising like a conventional turboprop. Unlike a turboprop though it can land almost anywhere, and its speed and range are typically expressed as multiples of helicopter performance.
Prototype tiltrotors were developed by Bell and Boeing in the 1950s, and demonstrated their unique features in flight before the end of the Eisenhower Administration. Two generations of more advanced tiltrotors followed, and the Army was present at the creation of both. The first was the NASA-Army XV-15 program begun in 1973, which had its initial flights during the Carter Administration. The second was the Joint Services Advanced Vertical Lift Aircraft, or
JVX, which began as an Army-led program in 1982. The latter program is now coming to fruition as the V-22 Osprey, an aircraft that in various versions will be operated by the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force.
But while the Army was present at the creation of this versatile military system, it is not present at the fruition. In 1983 the Navy took over program leadership and in 1988 the Army withdrew entirely, ostensibly to pursue the LHX program. LHX became the RAH-66 Comanche, which one day soon promises to be the most sophisticated combat helicopter in the world. But an armed reconnaissance helicopter doesn’t have much mission overlap with a transport aircraft like the V-22, and many Army aviators in 1988 expressed a desire to revisit the JVX effort once development was completed (a transport variant of the LHX was cancelled the same year). Now the V-22 is in production, and the Army is missing in action. Why?
The short answer is money. The Army’s aviation modernization budget is so underfunded that even suggesting the introduction of another high-tech airframe may seem pointless. Moreover, the V-22 cannot internally carry a Hummer, diminishing its appeal to the service. But maybe money and internal cargo capacity aren’t the only reason why the Osprey is absent from Army plans. Perhaps the omission also reveals a lack of imagination within Army aviation
caused by too much conventional thinking and cultural insularity. Maybe it indicates the intellectual rigidity that can result from being in a state of chronic fiscal crisis. And it also may reflect an unacknowledged disconnect between Army plans and emerging operational challenges. Before dismissing such possibilities, consider some recent news items of interest to Army aviation.
Item. Shortly before becoming the Army’s new Vice Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Jack Keane criticized the service’s prevailing approach for introducing forces into conventional conflicts as “an anachronism”, and asserted the service needed to rely more heavily on “vertical assets” not directly under its control. Reflecting on operations in Kosovo, Keane derided the limited role of aircraft in current plans and argued that greater use of other services’ airborne systems could prove essential to future operational success.
Item. The increasing frequency of extended-range helicopter missions is forcing the Army to develop a new external fuel tank for its Apache and Blackhawk helicopters. Long-range missions in hostile air space used to be so uncommon that little thought was given to the crashworthiness or ballistic vulnerability of auxiliary tanks, but mission profiles are changing and now a better tank is needed.
Item. At a May conference of the Army Aviation Association, Major General John Riggs asserted that the service aviation community needed to completely rethink its assumptions about how to participate in joint warfighting. According to the trade publication Inside the Army, Riggs told his audience that the first question they should ask themselves was, “Are we packaged right at the tactical level for joint or combined operations?”
Item. During their review of the fiscal 2000 defense budget in the spring, Senate authorizers condemned the Army’s latest aviation modernization plan as ill-conceived and undependable. Their complaints reportedly paralleled the concerns of outgoing Chief of Staff General Dennis Reimer, who was said to describe the utility helicopter portion of the plan as “the fourth story in four years”.
What these items collectively seem to indicate is that lack of resources is not the only problem facing Army aviation. There is growing doubt that existing systems, plans and tactics can cope with all the contingencies the service may face in the years ahead. The frustrating experience of Task Force Hawk was a wakeup call for some Army leaders, not so much because of any particular deficiency in the 24 Apaches dispatched to Kosovo, but because of suspicion that the Army’s whole approach to aviation may be out of date.
To the extent that problem is reflected in the planned inventory of aircraft, it is far more pronounced in the transport component of the hel
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