Defense Acquisitions:

Army Aviation Modernization Has Benefited from Increased Funding but Several Challenges Need to Be Addressed

GAO-09-978R: Published: Sep 28, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 28, 2009.

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The Army's current efforts to transform and modernize its aviation assets began in 1999, seeking to maintain and improve the warfighting capabilities of the existing force as well as to invest in science and technology in a way that improved the future force. To accomplish these goals, the Army focused on upgrading and modernizing existing equipment, rapidly fielding new equipment, incorporating new technologies as they became available, and restructuring aviation warfighting units. Initially, fielding the developmental Comanche helicopter was a key focus of modernization, but when the Comanche program was terminated in 2004, an investment strategy was presented to Congress that would redistribute $14.6 billion of planned Comanche funding through fiscal year 2011 to enhance a broad range of Army aviation modernization efforts. Furthermore, the Army is currently re-evaluating the plans that were established in 2004 by conducting several assessments, tracking progress, and assessing future capability requirements, and intends to develop an updated Aviation Modernization Plan in 2010. Given this, Congress asked us to determine: (1) What is the Army's current investment strategy for its aviation forces? (2) How do the current aviation plans differ from the initial post-Comanche plans and what are the causes of the differences? (3) What challenges does the current investment strategy face?

The current Army aviation modernization plan, as proposed through fiscal year 2010, includes a combination of procuring and upgrading existing aviation systems, developing new systems, and buying off-the-shelf equipment. Existing aviation systems include the Apache, Blackhawk, Chinook, and Kiowa Warrior helicopters. New aviation systems include the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile and Sky Warrior unmanned aerial system. Off-the-shelf programs include the Light Utility Helicopter and Raven unmanned aerial system. Of the $5.8 billion requested by the Army for aviation investments in fiscal year 2010, the majority--71.1 percent--is for existing aviation programs. Development programs account for 11.0 percent and off-the-shelf programs, 6.3 percent.2 Existing aviation programs are generally meeting their cost and schedule goals, as are off-the-shelf programs. However, the new development programs have either been delayed or are just starting up. While aviation plans continue to be dominated by investments in existing and off-the-shelf programs, the Army spent considerably more on aviation in recent years than originally planned, yet terminated new development programs. For fiscal years 2006 through 2010, actual spending was about $30.8 billion--including base budget and supplemental funds--considerably more than the Army's original target of $21.6 billion (in fiscal year 2010 dollars). Major increases in funding occurred in several programs: Apache upgrades and procurement, unmanned aerial system procurement, Chinook and Blackhawk procurement, Hellfire missiles, and Aircraft Survivability Equipment. A sizable portion of the increased funding was for replacement aircraft and missiles that were lost or used in ongoing conflicts. Also, differences exist in several areas due to an expansion in an existing aviation program, termination of several programs planned for development, and program changes as directed by the Secretaries of Defense and Army. Ongoing activities to modernize Army aviation are expected to continue for the next several years, but several challenges exist that will have an impact on those efforts, including managing within reasonable funding expectations, balancing demands to field equipment quickly while ensuring the maturity of the technology, and acquiring and maintaining needed aviation capabilities. For example, (1) Managing within reasonable funding expectations will require the Army to provide long-term funding to support upgrading and sustaining the Kiowa Warrior helicopter fleet, and potentially develop and procure a replacement for the Kiowa Warrior. Furthermore, the Army will need to maintain an acceptable inventory of Hellfire missiles (particularly the laser variant) until the Joint Air-to-Ground missile is available. (2) Balancing demands to field equipment quickly while ensuring the maturity of the technology will require the Army to continue to meet current aircraft survivability needs with currently available equipment and develop follow-on survivability capabilities. Further, the Army will need to come to agreement on unmanned aerial system commonality issues with the Air Force while resolving Sky Warrior technical issues. (3) Acquiring and maintaining needed aviation capabilities will require the Army to balance its aviation capabilities to account for the addition of unmanned aircraft systems; while many new unmanned aircraft systems have been fielded, there have been no reductions in manned aircraft. Further, the Army will need to optimize teaming between unmanned aircraft, ground forces, and manned aircraft.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Army generally concurred with the report and recommendations. The Army Modernization strategy issued in April 2010 did not include a monetary assessment of funding levels or indicate how they will manage within funding constraints.

    Recommendation: To address various challenges, the Secretary of the Army should ensure that the 2010 Army Aviation Modernization Strategy include an assessment of the impact of potentially available funding levels and sources on the ongoing and planned aviation programs, and how the Army will maximize capabilities within these constraints.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Army generally concurred with the report and recommendations. The 2010 Army Modernization strategy issued in April 2010, while mentioning lessons learned from wartime technologies, they did not include specifics on which programs would benefit from this analysis or the level of detail to be included in the analysis.

    Recommendation: To address various challenges, the Secretary of the Army should ensure that the 2010 Army Aviation Modernization Strategy include specifics on how the Army intends to balance demands to field aviation equipment quickly while ensuring that the technology is mature, and to apply lessons learned in its new development programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Army generally concurred with the report and recommendations. The 2010 Army Modernization strategy issued in April 2010 did not address the feasibility of acquiring future capabilities or the manned and unmanned mix over the long term.

    Recommendation: To address various challenges, the Secretary of the Army should ensure that the 2010 Army Aviation Modernization Strategy include an assessment of the feasibility of acquiring and employing future aviation capabilities--such as the Joint Future Theatre Lift aircraft--as well as manage the mix of manned and unmanned capabilities over the long term.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army

 

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