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Make US Army Aviation More Lethal

Commentary by R.D. Hooker, Jr. via Defense One

For speed, lethality and decisive influence on the land battle, Army Aviation is the Army’s crown jewel. Yet a few changes could dramatically increase the aerial force’s lethality and survivability, and do so without breaking the bank.

First, a primer of sorts. Army Aviation’s principal platforms—the AH-64E attack helicopter, the UH-60M assault helicopter and the CH-47F heavy lift helicopter—are proven, reliable and effective, able to operate day or night and in all weather. Army divisions today include a combat aviation brigade with 48 AH-64s, 30 UH-60s, and 12 CH-47s. This brigade also fields eight UH-60 command-and-control aircraft and 12 HH-60 medevac aircraft, as well as 12 RQ-7 and 12 MQ-1C unmanned aerial vehicles. 

Given the decline in field artillery, Army attack aviation is the most powerful striking weapon available to division commanders. Each AH-64E can carry 16 Hellfire missiles in addition to a lethal 30mm chain gun. The division’s 48 Apaches can thus launch up to 768 fire-and-forget anti-tank missiles at targets out to 8 km. Operating at stand-off ranges, they are survivable and, with cruise speeds of 150 knots, they can be rapidly repositioned to engage and destroy massed enemy armor. The Apache can also control the MQ-1C, which can also be armed. 

By contrast, the Army’s UH-60 assault helicopters carry just two 7.62mm door guns. This not only leaves them seriously undergunned relative to near-peer competitors, but wastes a design that was intended to accommodate a full complement of antitank missiles and rockets. A UH-60 can carry up to 16 Hellfires externally loaded, with another 16 carried internally, and mount either the GAU-19 .50 caliber or the M134 7.62mm mini-gun. The aircraft can also be configured with 2.75-inch rockets and the Stinger anti-air missile. (The MH-60L DAP aircraft flown by the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment can carry Hellfires, as can the MH-60R helos flown by the Navy.) This change would dramatically improve the combat power available to division commanders, enabling them to mass lethal fires far more quickly than with ground maneuver units, while also retaining the capability to conduct troop-carrier operations when needed.

Speaking of Stingers, in the 1980s the Army Aviation Center experimented with an air-to-air capability for attack helicopters, but the initiative died as the Cold War drew down. Today, both Russia and China field advanced attack helicopters armed for aerial combat. Both also field dense and capable medium- and high-altitude air defenses as well as capable air forces, making air dominance, especially in the early stages of a ground campaign, problematic. The Army, which can no longer rely on the U.S. Air Force to ensure Army Aviation’s survivability against air threats, should move quickly to provide an air-to-air capability for its attack and assault helicopters. 

A more controversial proposal, but one that clearly merits serious consideration, is to provide the Army with its own fixed-wing close air support. Though considered by many to be a radical proposition, the Army needs its own fixed-wing air arm for the very same reason that the Navy and Marine Corps do. It has its own unique needs, vital to its success in ground campaigns, that aren’t met by sister services or by appealing for more “jointness.” These needs do not encompass air dominance, long-range interdiction or strategic bombing, classical Air Force missions. The modern distribution of fixed-wing combat aircraft is, as much as anything, a historical accident. Long before the Air Force separated from the Army, the Navy and Marine Corps established their own air arms, specialized for their own needs and missions. They retain them to this day. As long as the Army Air Forces were subordinated to the Army, its requirements for tactical air power were also met, even as an increasingly independent strategic air force evolved.

That largely ended when the U.S. Air Force was created in 1947. One of its first official acts was to disestablish Tactical Air Command (a later Air Force Chief of Staff reportedly referred to Lt. Gen. Pete Quesada, the heroic commander of the 9th Tactical Air Force in WWII, as a “traitor”). The essence of an independent Air Force is the “strategic” application of air power. Accordingly, close air support is seen as “wasteful” and “indecisive” and has enjoyed the lowest priority in the Air Force for generations. As early as the Korean War, Marine Air was found to be four times more responsive than Air Force CAS. In every war, this conflict has recurred. As Carl Builder noted in his classic Masks of War, “Losing the freedom to apply airpower independently to decisive ends is to lose that which pilots have striven so hard to achieve for much of the history of the airplane. Thus, close air support will always be an unwanted stepchild of the Air Force.” Despite its representations to the contrary, the Air Force possesses only one airplane optimized for the CAS mission, the A-10 Thunderbolt. All other fighter aircraft were designed for different missions and flight profiles. The Air Force has repeatedly attempted to retire the A-10 or, when faced with congressional opposition, push it into the reserves. In 2020, there are 367 A-10 aircraft in service. 

A better approach is to transfer the A-10—an aircraft the Air Force doesn’t want, for a mission it doesn’t like—to the Army. The current inventory will support one squadron of 24 aircraft in each Army division, leaving 127 for training and spares. Though the Army’s attack helicopter community is vital, the A-10 is superior to the AH-64 in many ways, being more survivable, longer ranged and faster, with a mighty weapons load. So configured, the Army could be its own primary CAS provider, though in extremis, it might still call on its sister services for assistance. The U.S. Air Force would retain primacy for air interdiction. 

Such a move would require a host of other actions, including pilot training, maintenance infrastructure and personnel, funding adjustments and much else. All are doable. Indeed, the Army had few aircraft after the Army Air Forces gained independence, but in time grew to possess more aircraft (mostly helicopters) than any other service. The time is right to make this move. The Army will gain flexible, rapid combat power it badly needs. The Air Force will be relieved of a platform it has been trying to jettison for years. Inter-service rivalry will be eased. And national security will be enhanced.