Contributor: Andrew Elwell
Posted: 03/14/2013 12:00:00 AM EDT | 0
What’s the focus of the Defense and Strategic Studies Program at the United States Military Academy? What is your role?
The Defense and Strategic Studies Program is an academic major in the Department of Military Instruction at the United States Military Academy, West Point. It is a multi-disciplinary major where our cadets are challenged to apply history, policy, and theory; frame complex strategic problems; and generate viable and innovative solutions to contemporary military problems. I am an academic instructor and course director for "DS385: Sustaining the Force." In DS385 we look at a country's ability to Generate, Transport, Sustain, and Reallocate/Redeploy its fighting forces as a factor of military, and thus national, power. This includes historical and contemporary studies of military logistics at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. This position is one of many that Army officers can apply for after their company command. I served in Baghdad, Iraq as a Platoon Leader in 2005 and as a planner and company commander in 2007-08. The Army then sent me to get my Masters Degree at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy in preparation for this assignment. It’s worth pointing out here that as a U.S. Army Armor Officer - not a logistician or aviation officer – I must emphasise that all of my contributions to the Gulf Military Helicopter Conference are academic and do not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of the United States Military Academy, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Department of Defense.
Could you please discuss and summarise your thoughts on the use of Cargo UAVs for the U.S. Army? What are the pros and cons?
The last 11 years of combat have forced the US military to consider a number of new technologies and systems. While tactics revolving around counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism gain a lot of attention, logistics considerations can often go underappreciated, and therefore under-analysed. Although unmanned technological integration is currently popular, it is not sensible for the Army to pursue a supply-oriented UAV when the funds for such a project could be used to augment current rotary-wing assets. Recent accolades for the United States Marine Corps’ use of Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX optionally-manned helicopter are, in my opinion, overblown, and fall short from legitimating widespread acquisition of the platform, or concept.
There are certainly pros and cons on both sides of the argument. Some argue that every load a cargo UAV carries reduces ground convoys that are vulnerable to threats inherent in modern warfare. Further, the current Syrian conflict has shown the vulnerability of cargo helicopters in the face of hybrid threats. Taking the pilot out of harm’s way when supplies are being moved across the battlefield seems to be a good idea. Finally, UAVs could alleviate the pilot rest cycle for aviation units, especially given that autonomous flight and tethering may be future capabilities.
My skepticism is rooted mainly in organisational issues. In order to carry loads that are meaningful in the resupply mission, the size of the craft will ultimately lack the flexibility found in reconnaissance UAVs, such as the Shadow. The large aircraft (the KMAX is as big as an AH-64 Apache) have requisite service personnel and maintenance that demand protected maintenance facilities. Furthermore, delivery accuracy assumes the existence of trained crews to be on the ground where the supplies are being delivered. One study on the topic implies that six crews are needed for each UAV. This would represent a significant increase in manpower in the “tail’ of the force for a capability that has a marginal net benefit. I say this with all due respect to those logisticians
A closing thought for those who argue that the U.S. Army should adopt these platforms. It is important to consider that no pilot is endangered when one of these choppers crashes or is shot down. One cannot forget, however, that the sensitive nature of the equipment on the UAV will still require an extensive recovery process, ground forces approaching a known objective. This should limit the argument that their use eliminates all risk. I look forward to discussing the concept with true aviators and members of the industry.
What about the drawdown from Afghanistan next year - could the logistics challenge there be aided with improvements to current rotary cargo aircraft?
I think that the reverse logistics of wide area security operations in terrain like Afghanistan places uniquely strenuous demands on rotary airlift units. It is easy enough to drop tonnage from fixed wing assets in large quantities, but when the equipment and personnel have to be extracted, rotary wing lift is critical. As the strength of the force reduces, it will be that much more difficult to secure the ground lines of communications. This brings up another point about the Cargo UAV problem. While transferring cargo and equipment between larger Forward/Main Operating Bases (FOBs) seems feasible, there would be significant additional requirements to allow cargo to be lifted by UAVs out of the smaller Combat Outposts (COPs) like those in Afghanistan.
Most importantly, I believe that the apparent direction modern warfare demands robust tactical airlift capabilities within modern forces. Manned, rotary, cargo lift provides flexibility and operational options to ground force commanders as they face the prospect of hybrid threats, a lack of a rear area, and dilapidated infrastructure.
What are you hoping to get out of the Gulf Military Helicopter conference? What will make it a successful conference for you?
As a professional officer, I look forward to this opportunity to learn. What better way than to do so from service members from so many different countries in the phenomenal setting of the Armed Forces Officers’ Club in the UAE? This experience can only make me a better officer. I hope that my presentation will contribute to any dialogue surrounding the testing, acquisition, and fielding of cargo UAVs. Moreover, I hope to generate discussion about helicopters’ roles in military logistics. I teach my cadets at West Point that military logistics, a country’s ability to generate-transport-sustain-redeploy its armed forces, is a key factor of military power, and therefore national power. The presence of organic cargo helicopters can therefore, in the words of Colin Gray, be the arbiter of military strategies.