Army hunts for answers as Apaches fail in Kosovo; Readiness, training faulted as 21st-century helicopter stumbles


WASHINGTON -- It is touted as one of the Army's most lethal weapons, a fearsome-looking helicopter that can whiz along at more than 150 mph, pop up undetected from behind hills and spew a torrent of missiles, rockets and banana-size bullets.

But when the Apaches were called upon for the Kosovo conflict, it took nearly a month to get the helicopters in place. And they never saw combat, though two pilots were killed in training accidents.

Then the Army's most respected helicopter officer unleashed a stinging salvo, telling his superiors that the Apache pilots were not properly trained and the aircraft carried outdated equipment. That blunt assessment by Brig Gen. Richard Cody, a legendary Apache pilot who led the opening strikes deep into Iraq during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, spurred a congressional panel this week to provide an additional $94 million for the $814 million Apache program, while criticizing Army leadership for allowing it to falter.

"We feel in Kosovo we had serious problems with the Apache. We need to learn from that," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, a California Republican who chairs the House spending subcommittee that deals with defense issues. "These are items of priority the Army should have addressed."

Meanwhile, other lawmakers have complained that it took the Army too long to move the Apaches from Germany to Albania to support Operation Allied Force. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a key member of the Armed Services Committee, complained to Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff.

McCain compared the Army's performance with that of the Navy, which was able to quickly redirect a carrier to the Adriatic Sea and almost immediately launch a withering attack against Yugoslavia with aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Shinseki told McCain, a former Navy pilot who is running for president, that the Army ran into numerous problems not of its making. Humanitarian assistance took up Air Force cargo space needed to move the Apaches to Albania, while the Albanian airport was too small and needed renovations. Drenching rains flooded potential helicopter landing sites, which had to be improved with steel matting.

The problems with the Apaches continue to reverberate through top levels of the service. Army leaders are crafting a vision for a 21st-century force that will be unveiled in October. How to operate and finance the Apaches will be a key part of that plan, officials said, with one noting that their performance in Kosovo "is fresh on their minds."

Army officials cautioned that Cody's memo -- which was leaked to news media -- was a typical "after-action report," a lessons-learned memorandum requested by senior officers.

"We are not broken," Shinseki said recently, after the memo became public. "But we need to pay attention to some of the things we learned out of this."

Army officers and officials say readiness troubles such as those with the Apaches are becoming endemic in a military that has seen its personnel cut by a third since the end of the Cold War while the number of operations, including peacekeeping operations that stretch from Haiti to the Sinai desert to Bosnia, has tripled.

One official acknowledged that the situation has led to a "tension" between the goals of modernizing the force and being adequately prepared for current operations.

"We can only ignore modernization so long," the official said. "We're probably more biased toward the present readiness."

Cody said the Army is being stretched too thin during a time of reduced troops and increased responsibilities.

"We are seeing the results of many years of declining resources and resource constraints, in terms of funding or training and equipment," Cody told the House military readiness subcommittee recently. "At a time when our mission load in the Army has increased 300 percent, this funding is critical."

The Apache pilots deployed to Albania lacked what he considered necessary training. While Apache pilots are required to have 140 hours of training per year to be considered proficient, they should have 500 hours, the general wrote. But more than 65 percent had under 500 hours, and the junior officers have "little flight experience and little aviation 'savvy,' " Cody wrote.

The Army needs to put some "teeth" into the professional development of its young officers, Cody wrote, noting that too many are pulled from the helicopters to fill staff positions. "This is clearly a leadership and command issue," he added.

For the past two years, the Apache force has been short one-third of the needed pilots. Cody noted that 22 officers from Fort Bragg, N.C., were sent to operate undermanned Apaches for Albania deployed from a U.S. regiment in Germany.

None of the crews were trained to use night-vision goggles in the Apache's copilot-gunner position. The two-member crew is not required to train with the goggles, because the Apache has an infrared radar system that can be used for both targeting and flying. But Cody said that until a new and more-sophisticated radar system is funded -- one that can double the resolution and range -- the crew should be trained with the goggles.

"Every time we have a crisis we end up scrambling and quickly having to train soldiers" with the night-vision goggles, Cody said.

Col. Oliver H. Hunter, who commands the Apache regiment in Germany that provided the helicopters for Albania, told Congress there is insufficient funding for additional training.

Besides the next-generation infrared radar, Cody said, the helicopters lacked other state-of-the-art equipment, including radar jammers, radios and fuel tanks. The new infrared radar is not due until 2004, Cody said, and the other advances are also years away.

The additional funding by the House spending subcommittee, which must be approved by Congress, would provide $75 million to develop the next-generation infrared radar and $19 million for spare parts, House staff members said.

"We worked off the after-action report that Cody and company generated after the war," a staff member said.

While the Kosovo conflict ended without the Apaches being ordered into battle, two of the helicopters crashed in training flights, killing two pilots. Army officials said there are no indications that inadequate training was to blame.

"We don't know; it's too early," said an officer who commanded Apache helicopters.

Army officials are considering additional training for Apache crews, particularly the command pilots. Officials at Fort Rucker, Ala., site of the Army's Aviation Center and School, require a minimum of 14 1/2 hours of training per Apache helicopter crew per month.

"Does that make everyone comfortable? No, we would like more," a colonel said. "That's one of the things the Army's looking at."

But he noted that the Army has to juggle a budget that already spends a lot on helicopter training. At Fort Hood, Texas, $22 million is budgeted to train a 1,700-member brigade with 70 Apache, Kiowa and Comanche helicopters. That compares with about $20 million to train the 15,000 soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division.

"We're already expensive," said the officer.

But part of the problem has nothing to do with money and everything to do with international politics. Germany, where four of the Army's 15 Apache battalions are based, severely restricts night flying of U.S. helicopters, although the Army is trying to get an additional two hours per night for training.

"The Apache, of course, is a night fighter. We need to train at night," Hunter told Congress.

And the Army is struggling to stem the loss of Apache pilots, most of whom are warrant officers who say they are leaving mainly because of the number of deployments, particularly tours such as Bosnia that bar them from taking their families.

The Army has been offering yearly $12,000 bonuses for five years to entice senior pilots to remain.

"We've gotten proactive and started to see that number level off and come up," an Army officer said.

Pub Date: 7/16/99

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad