WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army’s aviation director at the Pentagon told the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee on Wednesday what could happen to the service’s pilots and aircraft should a yearlong continuing resolution become a reality and offered up grim consequences should full sequestration be restored in fiscal 2018.
From Maj. Gen. Erik Peterson’s testimony, top modernization priorities for the Army are at the edge of a precipice and a CR and sequestration would push them over the edge. In addition, readiness will suffer as the service deals with pilot training backlogs, the military officer explained.
Should a yearlong CR occur — which forces the Army to work using the same budget levels as 2016 — some Army aviators will not move through the training pipeline at a rate that compensates for retirement and attrition.
“We will not be able to increase the throughput in our flight school with respect to additional instructor pilots, contract instructor pilots, contract maintenance as well as sustain additional airframes for the school,” Peterson said. “It will essentially defer this problem another year until we have the requisite funding that has been budgeted for by the Army to implement these incentives, and then we will get closer to that cliff that we discussed about the top-heavy population, the disproportionate top-heavy retirement eligible population.”
Peterson said the Army has spent several years coping with sustained fiscal constraint by making difficult resourcing choices and prioritizing readiness over long-term recruiting and training.
“We simply cannot afford to train the number of new pilots we need to sustain a healthy force, a growing challenge that is masked by relatively healthy current aggregate strength,” Peterson said. He added that the service has accumulated a shortage of 731 regular Army aviation warrant officer across year groups 2010 through 2017 and is therefore relying on senior aviation warrant officers — of which 25 percent are eligible to retire — to fill junior positions.
The Defense Department is already working under a CR that is slated to expire April 28, but there’s talk on Capitol Hill that a CR could extend through the rest of the fiscal year.
If full sequestration returns in fiscal 2018, the pilot readiness challenge the Army already faces will be further exacerbated, Peterson said, and the service anticipates suffering “readiness hurdles with respect to airframe materiel readiness.”
Major programs the Army has long fought to keep in order to modernize the force would also need to be halted entirely or slowed, Peterson said.
Two are programs that are needed to keep the current fleet in the air for what could be another 50 years or longer — the CH-47F Chinook cargo helicopter Block II upgrades and the Improved Turbine Engine Program, or ITEP — would be in trouble.
ITEP has long been proclaimed a top priority, but it’s been a long road to develop the future engine that will ultimately replace the current engine in roughly 3,000 UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. The engine will be more powerful and fuel-efficient and will help compensate for the growing weight of both aircraft.
Army leaders stressed the engine replacement was its No. 1 priority, but after it wrapped up the science and technology phase, it struggled to get off the ground for well over a year.
The service awarded contracts to two teams developing possible ITEP engines to submit preliminary designs: the Advanced Turbine Engine Co. — a Honeywell and Pratt & Whitney team — and GE Aviation.
The service is expected to make a critical decision on the ITEP program in 2018, choosing one engine design to continue into the engineering and manufacturing development phase.
More outlying modernization efforts the Army is seeking to speed up could also be delayed, including the Future Vertical Lift initiative, which is expected to become a program of record in 2019 to field a new helicopter in the early 2030s. The service plans to fly demonstrator aircraft this fall to inform the future program.
And “probably the most salient and important is that we will slow or defer very important protection and countermeasure initiatives that are underway right now,” Peterson said.
Peterson’s testimony is just a small preview of what’s to come as the service chiefs plan to testify at the House Armed Services Committee on the consequences of the ongoing CR on April 5.
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