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Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Editor's Notebook

Is the West at War?

By James T. McKenna

OCTOBER BROUGHT TWO IMPORTANT gatherings in America-the Assn. of the U.S. Army's annual meeting in Washington and the National Business Aviation Assn.'s yearly convention, in Orlando. Neither is a helicopter industry event per se, yet rotorcraft play crucial roles in the activities at the heart of each-warfighting for the former and business flying for the latter.

The timing of the shows, just a week apart, brought into contrast an irony of life in the West these days.

For the NBAA and its members, business is booming. In early October, the stock market, as measured by the Dow Jones Index, set four records for day-ending values. Those records confirmed the market's full recovery from the falloff propelled by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. With the U.S. economy chugging along nicely, companies focus on further improving their efficiency and profitability. Business aviation is often a key tool for doing that, and helicopters play a small but important role for that market. So times promise to be good for business aviation.

That's true, in fact, for most of aviation in general and for almost all of rotorcraft in particular. It may be an unorthodox way of looking at it, but I'd argue that the unprecedented strike by offshore and emergency medical service pilots against PHI is affirmation of that.

At some level, union leaders (and 35 percent of its 600 pilots, according to the company) must have concluded that demand for PHI's services and for their flying skills were so high that the company couldn't do business without them. It remains to be seen whether they were right. But it's safe to say they would not have walked off the job in a weak economy will less than full demand for helicopter services and pilots.

"Business" for the military is booming, too. The hunt for Al Qaeda and other terrorists around the world, the fight against the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and the struggle to stabilize Iraq have Western military services, particularly their rotary-wing aviators, running nearly nonstop.

But you'd be hard-pressed to know that unless you wear a military uniform or work for a company that directly supports those who do. I can't speak for those in other nations hit by terrorist attacks since September 11. But the main concern of the average American is how much it will cost this week to fill the car's gas tank. Those with loved ones in combat live every day fearing what's going on "over there," I'm sure, as do those in communities surrounding military bases. But they suffer individually and outside the limelight. For Americans as a nation, today's war seems something to pass quickly on cable TV between baseball playoffs, old movies, home-improvement shows and shopping channels.

Politicians love the war. It's a means of bashing those in the other party. But few in Washington have the spine to call on themselves, colleagues and American voters to truly address the cost of this war.

Think what you want about the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, and the war against terrorists that spans the globe-about how and why we got into them, how they have been prosecuted and whether we should stay in any or all of them. Those are separate issues from the injustice we are perpetrating or tolerating today.

We have and continue to put our troops in harm's way without the resources they need and deserve to accomplish the task we've set before them. U.S. military units have barely a year's time at home between combat deployments. That not only exhausts the troops, as the Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard Cody, explained at the AUSA gathering. It blocks commissioned and non-commissioned officers from getting the skills and leadership training they will need to be ready for the next fight. The high operational tempo also exhausts equipment at a time when the military services lack the resources to repair or restore it swiftly.

Those circumstances led the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, to the unprecedented move of essentially challenging Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who brought him out of retirement to run the service, and the White House to a stand-off over not just Army funding but the entire defense budget.

The problem is real, critical and not limited to the United States. Lead times on helicopters to replace those lost in combat (or expand our critical vertical-lift capabilities) run to three years, in part because crucial titanium is being used to make jewelry, bike frames and more commercial airliners instead of combat aircraft components. In the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Defence is considering borrowing helicopters from Denmark and Portugal to fill a "priority" vertical-lift shortfall for its troops in Afghanistan. Yet eight Chinook HC3s sit grounded by a seven-year dispute over how to certify their avionics software.

Schoomaker said of the Army budget fight, "It's not a matter of affordability. It's a matter of national priority." That could be said of more than the funding debate. Yet no one in America-in or outside of Washington-has hinted that taxes should be raised to pay for the war effort. No one suggests that critical raw materials should be rationed to ensure the military's supply. No one in America talks of sacrifice-either the ones citizens should be making or the ones those in uniform make every day. If we are to remain in this "long war" and prevail in it, perhaps we should be concerned as nations with how we are supporting our troops and less with where our next luxury will come from and how much it will cost.

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