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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Editor's Notebook: Appetite Suppressant

By Andrew Parker

Conflict is an inevitable part of today’s world. Soldiers need the right tools—including the unique air support that helicopters provide—to  fight and defend the country and its allies. Providing the right tools requires a defense budget that is approved with enough foresight and guidance to prepare for future equipment and support needs.

If you believe these three statements are true, the current budget and national debt crisis playing out in Washington is not only concerning because of all the direct economic impacts from passing ‘band-aid’ continuing resolutions, but also for the many areas that it affects, including the air support units of the U.S. military.

As this issue went to press, a $1-billion budget bill made its way through Congress headed for the President. But will this bill simply extend the problem out until another group of incapable politicians passes the buck so that another generation has to figure out the long-term solution? What will the impact of a large-scale budget compromise—whether it comes weeks, months or years from now—have on the defense budget, including efforts to modernize the thousands of helicopters that provide air support to troops stationed in conflict-stricken areas like Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as throughout the world?

Many people would like to know more details—not just the interested observers, but the professional soldiers, sailors, pilots and support crew that depend on the military to support their livelihood.

At this point (admittedly, things might change by the time this is printed), it’s just a waiting game, as there are not many people even inside the military who have a handle on the ramifications from the financial impasse.

Col. Richard Koucheravy, Chief of the Aviation Division for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, provided an update on the Army’s efforts to modernize and sustain its aerial fleet, which includes around 4,000 helicopters, “in a time of declining resources.” He presented the update during IDGA’s Helicon Summit East on December 14 in Baltimore.

“I don’t think anybody at the Defense Department right now, including the Secretary, really knows what’s going on with the defense budget, so we’re all trying to figure that out and read the tea leaves,” he said.

Koucheravy, who remarked that he “reads enough to be glad that I’m not a politician,” said that “you’d have to be hiding under a rock” to have missed that “the prevailing subject in domestic American politics right now is our deficit and our debt—and that is the driving force behind what is happening with our military and how we’re going to shape what goes on in Army Aviation.”

The Budget Control Act of 2011 and the failure of the bipartisan “Super Committee” to reach an agreement “are hanging over our heads, and we don’t know what they mean,” Koucheravy explained. Army Aviation officials “have recently seen some thoughts from the appropriations committees, and they’re telling us what they intend to do with the FY2012 budget,” he said, adding this caveat: “We’re already well into fiscal year 2012 and operating off a continuing resolution because of all that uncertainty.”

With the reduction of forces in Iraq, “common sense would tell you that level of Defense Department spending is going to be reduced,” he continued, noting that there are two things going on—the recent impetus to control the deficit and the idea that as combat operations are reduced, more “normal” levels of defense spending will return.

“I think we’ve all gotten quite a bit complacent—many of us that work in the Department of the Army, the Department of the Navy, and OSD—look at recent spending and think that’s normal, and that’s not normal,” Koucheravy explained. “I think we’re going to see a return to normalcy, so we’re going to have to start taking some appetite suppressants in what we intend to accomplish in terms of modernizing equipment and buying new stuff.” He reminded attendees that “somewhere out there, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq or the Horn of Africa, soldiers are fighting, and so everything we do every day with these platforms and equipment is about getting into the hands of the user—a soldier out in the battlefield, either flying or riding in an aircraft. We have to challenge ourselves to remember that at all times and make sure that’s our primary goal.”

If only the politicians would adopt that philosophy. With the worldwide financial climate likely to cause additional belt-tightening for the U.S. military, the short-term results may not involve more than an adjustment here or there, but the long-term picture remains cloudy. Joint helicopter designs that are used across all services may be the answer (see “Joint is the Only Way Forward,” page 66), but in the mean time, put the pressure where it should properly reside—on the politicians in Washington, whose inability to reach a compromise threatens to push the financial health of the military—not to mention the country and world as a whole—to the brink.

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