Can the US Army Afford Helicopter Modernization?
The Defense Procurement Death Spiral. It’s what happens when the costs of each successive generation of equipment rise faster than inflation, leading to smaller, longer production runs that inflate costs further and often force additional rounds of cuts, as weapons programs collide with one another inside limited budgets. That isn’t what’s happening to the US Army’s helicopter modernization program, which canceled the world-leading RAH-66 Comanche scout/attack helicopter in favor of less capable but cheaper and more numerous off-the-shelf designs in the light utility (UH-72A) and armed reconnaissance (ARH-70A?) space, and is sticking with the proven CH-47 Chinook family (heavy lift) and H-60 Black Hawk family (utility) as its new-build options. A choice that’s creating a niche for new options and features in the utility space like the NH90 TTH, and Sikorsky’s H-92 Superhawk.
Even so, the Congressional Budget Office sees choppy air ahead. The US Army’s helicopter fleet has plunged from 9,000 at the end of the Cold War to 3,500 just 20 years later, and the “procurement holiday” of the 1990s plus high demand in the current conflict means that most of the helicopters in today’s fleet already exceed or soon will reach ages “greater than the Army considers practical.”
The CBO estimates that the Army’s modernization plan will cost $3.3 billion per year, on average, from 2007-2030, significantly more than the $2.2 billion annual average the Army has spent between 1986-2005. Military planners who propose future spending boosts are usually deluding themselves, unless the country embarks on a major increase in the defense procurement budget as a whole, or other areas are short-changed in exchange. Worse, this proposed spending boost comes in the same post-2020 time frame that the Army expects to invest heavily in the new $260+ billion Future Combat Systems (FCS) family of equipment. Yet short of shrinking the force again, or accepting further aging in the fleet, the low-cost approaches pursued by the US Army mean that there’s little potential to reduce spending on its overall helicopter modernization programs – as the CBO’s 4 alternative scenarios demonstrate. Read “Modernizing the Army’s Rotary-Wing Aviation Fleet (November 2007)” [PDF]