A new budget is supposed to be in place October 1. Only Congress can make that happen.
Forced to keep government running under a temporary measure called a ‘continuing resolution’ and with sequestration increasing total defence cuts to $10 trillion over the next ten years, Hagel doesn’t possess the means to decide anything and the air staff doesn’t have any way to plan anything. Air Force chief of staff General Mark Welsh wants a new bomber — the US has just 162 today — but there’s no money even to study the prospect.
It gets worse. The same Congress that won’t enable the air force to buy new aircraft also refuses to permit it to dispose of old ones. The USAF has tried for years to dispose of 32 of its oldest C-130H airlifters (it had hoped to get rid of 22 of them by September 30) as a first step towards converting to a fleet consisting entirely of second-generation C-130J-30 Super Hercules transports. The two Herk variants aren’t interchangeable: a pilot of one cannot fly the other, maintainers face different challenges and even loadmasters perform their duties differently. Unfortunately for the air force, the 32 H-model Herks are assigned, one or two per unit, in a dozen congressional districts, meaning each airframe has its own lawmaker. So far, legislation has prevented retirement of even one C-130H.
So Hagel spoke vaguely of other options — squadrons shutting down; a freeze on some pay and allowances and possibly the retirement of an entire aircraft fleet that Congress hasn’t placed restrictions on.
It sounds extreme, but the Pentagon is talking about retiring its entire fleet of B-1B Lancers,
66 of them. Thanks to satellite-guided munitions and new sensors, the B-1B, colloquially known as the Bone, has evolved into a valuable asset in Afghanistan where it can carry out precision close air support from high altitude. But the B-1B is also among the most expensive aircraft to operate. Even without a new bomber on the drawing board, it may have to go — a victim of the same budget process that may reduce navy aircraft carriers from ten to eight and cut army troop strength from 490,000 to 420,000.
When will the budget nightmare end? AIR International sought to ask a member of Congress. We couldn’t. They were still on their five-week vacation.
Army Aviation’s Ace
Plans for US Army aviation are mostly in legislative limbo, too. Funding for key programmes, including much-needed AH-64 Apache and OH-58D/F Kiowa Warrior upgrades, is in doubt.
But the army can rely on one workhorse that’s old, overweight and certain to be around for a long time to come.
The CH-47 Chinook, the «Energizer bunny of the rotary-wing world», as described by James McKenna of Rotor & Wing back in 2005, a reference to the rabbit in the television commercial that keeps going and going.
The CH-47 appears to have every prospect of becoming the first helicopter to serve for 100 years and its mission-capable, or reliability, rates remain high.
Powered by two Honeywell T55-GA-714A engines rated at 4,733shp each, the CH-47 is the only heavy-lift helicopter in the US Army. Studies to replace it date back 17 years, have evolved through several name changes and haven’t yielded a formal requirement or an aircraft design. Half-a-century after its first flight (September 12, 1961), the army is belatedly addressing a problem for which the ‘Shithook’ is notorious: soldiers breaking their ankles tripping on its floorboard rollers.
Incredibly the Chinook seems untouched by budget gridlock. American soldiers currently operate 400 CH-47D and CH-47F cargo haulers plus a few dozen MH-47E and MH-47G special operations aircraft. Boeing says it is «very comfortable» with its multi-year contract to provide 155 CH-47F models, including 121 rebuilds of earlier models plus 34 new builds, beginning in 2015.
Unfortunately the Chinook suffers what one army aviator called «weight creep», with average all-up heft relentlessly rising 100lbs (45kg) each year as minor tweaks are introduced in each airframe. To address weight gain, the army will introduce the Block 2 upgrade to the CH-47F fleet after 2020, when all CH-47D models will have been replaced and the service is expected to have 454 CH-47Fs. The details are yet to be determined, but minor changes are designed to trim excess weight and increase payload. The goal is to enable the CH-47F to carry a 22,000lb
(10,000kg) payload 50 nautical miles (92km). That would be an improvement of about 20% over today’s cargo-hauling capacity.
Upgrades to the CH-47 include gradual introduction of the $450,000 Cargo On/Off Loading modification to give crews the capability to reconfigure the interior in flight from cargo to passengers. Previously, crews spent two hours bolting or unbolting the rollers needed to load palletised cargoes easily. As part of the mod, a redesign in the floorboard eliminates protruding rollers and helps prevent the accidents that have annoyed Chinook passengers for decades.
Routine Missions, Sort Of Despite the funding crisis in Washington, US forces continue military operations. A few USAF combat squadrons grounded last spring by sequestration are back in the air thanks to a reshuffling of funds, although the Thunderbirds, Blue Angels and Golden Knights teams are still grounded as an economy move.
Air operations continue in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Mali and other trouble spots. In reaction to an apparent al-Qaeda threat on the Arabian Peninsula supposedly detected by US intelligence — which has about as much credibility as the US Congress -MQ-9 Reaper drones carried out five air-to-ground missile strikes in Yemen on August 8-9, killing 34 alleged al-Qaeda insurgents. One Washington pundit suggested they became al-Qaeda by virtue of becoming dead.
Two Block 40 F-16C Fighting Falcons of the 121st Fighter Squadron, District of Columbia Air National Guard, collided over the Chesapeake Bay on August 1. One pilot landed safely back at Andrews AFB. The other ejected and spent two hours in the water before being rescued by a Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter.
An HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter of the 33rd Rescue Squadron crashed on a flight from Kadena AB, Okinawa, on August 5. Three of the four crewmembers survived but TSgt Mark Smith,
30, a much admired flight engineer, lost his life. He had been a key figure in many combat rescues in Afghanistan.
The crash heightened tensions between US and Japanese officials and postponed the scheduled arrival on Okinawa of a second squadron of MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
Officials say they see no connection between the ageing of the air force’s aircraft fleet and the August mishaps.