The US military budget is now higher than during the peak of the Vietnam War (even after adding for inflation), when over 100 UH-1 "Huey" helicopters were produced each month, plus several Chinook helicopters. However, the US military is now buying just three new transport helicopters each month. The Marines spend $96 million each month for a V-22 which is then placed in storage in hopes it can be fixed one day. The Army buys one Blackhawk and the Navy one Knighthawk each month. This is not enough to replace annual combat and accident loses, not to mention those retired because of age after decades of service. As a result, the US military now faces a severe shortage of helicopters.
One reason is that each service pursues its own transport helicopter programs with small, irregular annual orders which drives up manufacturing costs as employers lay-off, and later attempt to rehire skilled personnel as demand fluctuates. In addition, each armed service orders different variants for the same basic airframe. Since all US military services need transport helicopters, the Department of Defense must decide on a common transport helicopter design and negotiate a low-cost multi-year procurement plan. The US Air Force plans to purchase 132 helicopters to replace its ageing fleet of HH-60 Pave Hawks used for Combat Search and Rescue. The Army has been buying the CH-60L Blackhawk for several years, which can carry three times the payload of the original CH-60A first built two decades ago. The Navy has begun to buy over 200 of a new Blackhawk variant, called the MH-60S Knighthawk, with a larger fuselage and modifications for shipboard operations. The MH-60S can also carry machine guns, rockets or up to 16 Hellfire missiles to double as an attack helicopter. This seems to be the ideal "joint" helicopter, although an upgraded version using components from the Army's next generation CH-60M may be better for a "Jointhawk".
Navy helicopters are "navalized" or "marinize", costing several million more per copy. This requires saltwater protective coatings, folding rotors for ship storage, and several minor modifications. Since the US Army and Air Force plan to operate in expeditionary environments, it is essential that their helicopters be capable of operating from Navy ships, which also allows them to tap into the Navy's repair parts pipeline and use ship hangers for repairs. This was apparent when a Navy aircraft carrier was devoted for Army use during the 1993 invasion of Haiti. The Army embarked just a few helicopters since each required a large amount of deck space as their rotors didn't fold. A multi-year Jointhawk buy will push the unit price much lower and offset the additional "navalized" costs for the Army and Air Force. They will find the ability to instantly fold up a helicopter surprising convenient for ship and air transport, and helpful at small expeditionary airfields.
The Special Operations command also needs a few dozen to replace their ageing MH-60K helicopters, while the US Coast Guard may show an interest in a low-cost common helicopter. Many foreign nations which operate Blackhawks will want some of these newer low cost variants too, driving down costs for everyone. The US Marine Corps needs Jointhawks because of soaring costs for the troubled V-22 program. The Corps already operates eight VH-60s as part of the President's helicopter squadron, and could use some modified as EH-60 electronic warfare and CH-60Q medivac helicopters already developed by the Army, as well as some long-range "K" types with twice the range as a V-22. The MH-60S can lift almost as much as the V-22, even though it's just one-third its weight and one third its cost. Finally, all Navy carriers, cruisers, and destroyers carry H-60 type aircraft, which permits flexible basing and support options for Marine Corps Jointhawks.
A common helicopter will also reduce long-term maintenance and support costs, often referred to as "total cost ownership". Spare parts can be purchased in larger quantities, training and manuals can be standardized, and future "joint" overhaul and upgrade programs are possible. While this idea for a major joint buy of transport helicopters seems logical, civilian leaders will face resistance. Each service likes running its own programs with specific features and will resist outside interference. However, civilian leaders must craft a compromise with the endorsement of the US Congress for a ten-year plan to purchase 1200 "Jointhawks" to slash procurement and support costs in half.
The Navy and Air Force already have funding planned for new "hawk" helicopters in future budgets, so a Jointhawk Master Plan can save them millions of dollars. The Marines must recognize that their plan to triple aviation funding over the next few years to afford two expensive airframes, the V-22 and F-35, is unrealistic. Reducing the planned buy of V-22s to purchase several squadrons of "Jointhawks" saves billions while providing Marines with a flexible platform and new capabilities. The Army must cancel the unneeded "Comanche" reconnaissance helicopter to purchase the numbers of transport helicopters it truly needs. Kiowa, Cobras, or Apaches can perform the reconnaissance role, or perhaps some Jointhawks can be modified as a command/reconnaissance platform. Since they can be armed as attack helicopters, it would be easy to modify some for a close-in attack role too, by adding ballistic floormats and shielding at key points.
The looming shortage of transport helicopters must be addressed today. Billions of dollars can be freed by canceling the Comanche program (see article below) and terminating the V-22 program early with hopes that the 80 V-22s already purchased and in testing or storage can eventually be upgraded and fielded. The armed services already plan to buy some 400 "hawk" variants over the next ten years at high costs because of the disjointed annual budget process. The US military needs a ten-year Jointhawk Master Plan plan to purchase 1200 transport helicopters at half price to prevent a massive shortfall in helicopter lift.
Carlton Meyer editorG2mil@Gmail.com
G2mil editorials may be freely distributed without permission
January 2004 Articles
have been returned to the Members Library
Letters - comments from G2mil readers
Gold-plated RAH-66 Comanche - buy transport helos instead
High-Velocity Medium Caliber Canister Cartridges - needed to engage infantrymen
Allow Full Enlisted Careers - to age 56
Another War on Shaky Territory - General Zinni speaks out
Smart Bombs, Dumb Targets - bombing in the dark
US Army Logistics Lessons Learned in Vietnam - many of the same problems remain
Eisenhower Warned Us - militarism leads to bankruptcy
Lessons Learned from Invading Iraq - official DoD documents
Montana Soldier Describes Duty in Iraq a Nightmare - a policeman's view
generals, admiral come out of the closet -
US spending surges to historic levels - communists gain more power
Previous G2mil - December 2003 issue
Past Editorials - by Carlton Meyer
2005 Base Closure List - likely closures (updated)
Library Tour - visit G2mil's library (2003 G2 Gems now open to visitors)
Library Entrance - members only
All material in G2mil Copyright 2004 G2mil, patents pending on some items. Links to www.G2mil.com are encouraged.