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The Bunker: Another costly Army chopper crash

This week in The Bunker: a fourth Army scout helicopter program flies into oblivion; low ammo stockpile highlights Pentagon’s peculiar priorities; U.S. foreign arms sales soar; and more.

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This week in The Bunker: a fourth Army scout helicopter program flies into oblivion; low ammo stockpile highlights Pentagon’s peculiar priorities; U.S. foreign arms sales soar; and more.

ANOTHER PENTAGON HELICOPTER CRASH

But this time it’s fiscal, not physical

It was 40 years ago that The Bunker began reporting on the Army’s efforts to improve its Vietnam-era Bell OH-58 scout helicopter, designed to survey the battlefield ahead of other attacking units. Since that time, the service has proposed replacing that venerable chopper with:

  • The LHX — Light Helicopter Experimental(PDF) — launched in 1983. In 1991, after eight years in development, it was officially named the RAH-66 Comanche. The Army killed the Boeing-Sikorsky program in 2004, citing its complexity and cost, after an investment of 21 years and $6.9 billion.
  • The $6.2 billion Bell ARH-70A Arapaho program began in 2005 and was canceled in 2008 after the cost-per-aircraft jumped nearly 70% and delivery slipped by four years.
  • The Armed Aerial Scout program started in 2012 but was scrapped the next year because of its $16 billion price tag.
  • In 2020 the Army tapped Bell and Sikorsky to vie to build the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, calling it “Army Aviation’s number one modernization priority.” But less than four years later, on February 8, the Army killed the program. “A sober assessment of the modern battlefield” shows the money would be better spent on drones and satellites, the service said in its surprise announcement. The Army had planned to spend $20 billion for up to 400 of the helicopters, and has spent nearly $2 billion on its development.

Four tries. Four flops. The last OH-58 Kiowa Warrior retired nearly a decade ago. The Army has filled the resulting gap with more costly AH-64 choppers. This fourth fumble makes the Army’s current effort to replace the Reagan-era Bradley Fighting Vehicle after three failures look like child’s play (unfortunately, the Army isn’t the only service with a premature cancellation problem). While some maintain the decision was tactically smart, it’s part of a strategic pattern that highlights the Army’s failure to chart a realistic course and stick to it.

A leading defense trade group couldn’t be bothered to mask its ire. “Army’s Latest Attempt to Replace Scout Helicopter Abruptly Ends; Billions More Wasted,” blared the headline at National Defense, a usually Pentagon-friendly outlet. National Defense is published by the National Defense Industrial Association, a military-contractor educational organization (“not a lobby firm,” its website says in bold type). “The latest chapter in the Army’s long, tortured journey toward replacing its now retired scout helicopter came to an end,” the story began, “with billions ... more of taxpayer dollars wasted on [a] program that went nowhere.”

The Army said it had to kill its latest scout chopper to invest in “new and enduring platforms.” Given the service’s history — both on the ground and above it — it’s more accurate to say that Army weapons can be either new, or enduring, but not both.

THE SILVER SHELL

Ukraine’s need for artillery rounds is dire

Turns out, the Pentagon’s perpetual quest for a silver bullet — some technological marvel giving U.S. forces a decisive edge in battle — has been supplanted by a silver shell: the humble, old-fashioned, and cheap 155mm artillery shell. The two-year-old war between Russia and Ukraine has slowed to a bloody stalemate, fueled by artillery shells. But Kyiv is running low on such ammo and is being out-gunned 3-to-1 by Moscow, forcing the U.S. and its allies to ramp up production.

But artillery shells are so 20th century. The U.S. military was producing 14,000 of the $1,000 rounds monthly when Russia invaded Ukraine, and is now at about 36,000 with a target of 60,000 by this fall. It is seeking to beef up its production facilities so that it can churn out 100,000 of the 2-foot-long shells by 2026.

“It’s becoming apparent that the United States may have built the entirely wrong war machine needed for the 21st century,” John Ferrari, a retired Army major general, wrote January 31 at Defense One. “Our [artillery-shell] magazines are routinely depleted as wars defy the assumption that they will be short or only occur in sequence.” (Currently, the Pentagon has no U.S. source for TNT, a key explosive in such shells, which it is now trying to rectify.) Plus, the Pentagon has larded its shells with exacting specifications that complicate production.

The U.S. military seems to believe that weapons matter more than will. That’s in keeping with its desire to invest in costly and complex hardware rather than the troops and the simple tools(PDF) they need to prevail. The 155mm shell’s return to the spotfight highlights the way war can make the best and brightest appear shortsighted. A little humility goes a long way when it comes to readying for battle. Too bad that when it comes to preparing for war, there are shortages of both humility and shells.

#1 WITH THE BULLETS

U.S. weapons sales soar

Arms sales by the U.S. government to foreign nations jumped from $51.9 billion in 2022 to $80.9 billion last year, a 55.9% increase. “This is the highest annual total of sales and assistance provided to our allies and partners,” the State Department declared January 29. And that ain’t the half of it. Sales directly from U.S. arms builders to foreign buyers nudged up from $153.6 billion in 2022 to $157.5 billion last year. All told, that’s a whopping $238.4 billion in U.S. foreign weapons sales in fiscal 2023, which ended September 30.

“Arms transfers and defense trade are important U.S. foreign policy tools with potential long-term implications for regional and global security,” the State Department adds. “Each proposed transfer is carefully assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Perhaps. But the latest report(PDF) from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute notes that the U.S. is by far the world’s biggest arms seller, accounting for 40% of the total from 2018-2022, up from 33% between 2013-2017. That translated into 14% higher U.S. arms exports between the two time spans. Over the same periods, SIPRI says, Russian arms sales fell 31% and China’s dropped 23%.

Well, it’s nice to be #1 in something, even if it’s not good enough: Congress is pushing to ease oversight of U.S. arms sales overseas to push those numbers even higher.

WHAT WE’RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

One soldier, one vote

An Army officer who escaped death several times in Iraq ponders if it was worth it, given the state of the nation today, David Finkel wrote February 11 in the Washington Post.

Military “justice”

An Army officer who placed a secret camera in a dressing room used by teenagers was merely reprimanded by the service, Jeff Schogol reported February 5 at Task & Purpose.

Solving the recruiting crisis

The Army struggles to fill its ranks because it still uses a draft-era “centralized personnel system,” Major Robert G. Rose wrote at West Point’s Modern War Institute February 9.

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