US Army sees support for aircraft funding

Top US Army officials see strong support for aviation programs in the Pentagon budget in coming years because of US troops’ growing reliance on Army helicopters and unmanned aircraft.
But they warned yesterday that it was still unclear how the Obama administration’s plan to stop using supplemental budgets to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan moving that spending into the Pentagon’s base budget would affect future funding for Army aircraft programs.
Brigadier General Tim Crosby, the Army’s program executive officer for aviation, said aviation programs had fared well so far in documents laying out Pentagon priorities for the next five years, but cuts could still be in the offing.
US troops were relying increasingly on Army helicopters and unmanned planes, especially with sophisticated communications that give soldiers instant access to surveillance and targeting information.
Crosby spoke to reporters at the annual Association of the US Army conference.
“Our warfighter on the ground really respect and see a need for what these rotary wing and (unmanned aerial vehicle) platforms are doing for them,” Crosby said.
“There’s a recognition that keeps us pretty well funded, but there’s also some realities of the budget coming down and we’re going to have to be frugal.”
Major General James Myles, commander of US Army Aviation and Missile Command, said much would depend on how funding transitioned from the Bush administration’s practice of using supplemental war budgets.
“Is this going to be a graceful supplemental transition or not?” Myles said.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about that.”
The Army has multiyear purchase agreements for Boeing Co AH-64D Apache helicopters, Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters, and Black Hawk helicopters built by Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp. All are heavily used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Pentagon leaders support aircraft programs. Gates had increased funding in the fiscal 2010 budget to accelerate training of Army helicopter pilots, according to Army officials.
Helicopter analysis
Crosby said steps were under way to modernize the existing fleet of OH-58 Kiowa armed helicopters until an analysis of alternatives for a new armed reconnaissance helicopter was completed in April or May.
The Army last year canceled a $6.2 billion (R46 billion) program led by Textron Inc’s Bell Helicopter to replace the aging Kiowas after the program’s cost threatened to increase sharply.
When the analysis is done, the Army will decide how to proceed, Crosby said. “We’re going to have to apply the reality check of what’s affordable, because we understand the budget and the crunch that’s coming with that,” he said.
Europe’s EADS is teaming with Lockheed Martin Corp to offer an armed version of EADS’ UH-72A light helicopter that it is already building for the US Army.
US Army officials said yesterday that program was on cost and schedule, and demand from foreign countries and other military services could boost demand beyond the 345 helicopters the Army currently plans to buy.
The armed helicopter competition is also expected to draw bids from Boeing, Sikorsky, and AgustaWestland, a unit of Italy’s Finmeccanica SpA.

Pic: CH- 47 Chinook