CV-22 Osprey Tilt-Rotor aircraft, US Department of Defense.
The US Army’s Future Vertical Lift programme is premised on an obsolete concept of employment. The helicopter will continue to be a critical tool in warfare, but like the horse in the Second World War, its place on the modern battlefield is as a beast of burden
‘The enemy threat has a very complex, integrated air defence system that really creates this deep standoff that we have to be able to penetrate’, Brigadier General Wally Rugen – who leads the Army Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team – told Army Magazine. ‘Army aviation has always been an asymmetric advantage since Vietnam. We don’t plan on yielding the air domain because it’s tough’. Unfortunately, such statements fundamentally misunderstand the threat, and consequently betray the inability of Air Cavalry today, like Cavalry of old, to recognise that their concept of operations is obsolete.
The Future Vertical Lift programme envisages the challenge to be ‘long-range standoff’, typified by Russia’s SA-21 surface-to-air missile system (SAM), with a range of approximately 300km. The thinking is that this will mean that helicopter forces will have to remain outside of this 300km threat ring until 5th generation stealth aircraft and long-range precision fires have knocked out enemy radar, or suppressed the batteries, so that the helicopters can airlift troops deep behind enemy lines. These troops would then wreak havoc on enemy coordination, seizing critical ground, and severing lines of communication.
The problem is that the SA-21 does not pose the main threat to aviation in a high-intensity warfighting scenario. Any Russian commander who fired a long-range SA-21 missile at a helicopter that was not posing a direct threat to their battery would be guilty of gross incompetence for wasting munitions critical to the wider campaign. While the suppression of long-range air defence systems is a priority mission for fast jets tasked with winning air superiority, the threat against aviation from Russian forces is far more dispersed. There are five air defence batteries organic to each Russian brigade. These range from medium range SAMs such as the SA17, down to Tor, Pantsir, and Tunguska self-propelled air defence platforms, to shoulder fired Igla and Verba MANPADs. These will densely populate any area of operations containing Russian troops. Most of the launchers in these batteries have integral radars – which while far more dependent against fast air on larger search and track radar capable of integrating data from several angles – are perfectly able to pick out aviation. Against modern radars, flying low will not grant the same levels of protection as in previous generations. The reality is that an aviation unit flying over an area containing a Russian army formation will be blown out of the sky.
There are far too many air defence systems able to engage aviation to be suppressed or destroyed by air strikes or long-range precision fires during the critical stages of any high intensity clash. If this has been achieved, then it may be assumed that Russian forces have been so badly attrited that the extra range of the ‘Future Vertical Lift’ systems is unnecessary; Russian forces have been defeated for all intents and purposes before the helicopters entered the airspace. Between 2001 and 2007, 130 US helicopters were lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Approximately a third of these were destroyed by ground fire, and very little of that ground fire was radar guided. Suffice to say the vulnerability of aviation has been amply demonstrated, even against modest threats.
There is also no reason to believe that the vulnerability of tactical aviation can be significantly decreased. Helicopters are highly vulnerable to 30mm cannon fire, which Russian forces have an ample supply of. Moreover, the diversity of systems, from heat seeking missiles that will give little warning of launch, to radar guided missiles, make viable countermeasures few and far between. There is unlikely to be a technological solution; the radar cross section of helicopters is large. It does not matter whether rotors tilt, or are stacked on top of one another. They are clearly visible to radar, and as radar technology continues to improve their exposure is likely to increase. The future therefore shows a growing threat, against which there is very little mitigation possible because of how helicopters work.
Which brings us to the horse. The horse’s utility did not end when it stopped being a viable means to conduct assaults. Throughout the Second World War horses were invaluable for moving guns and supplies, for runners, scouting, and shifting equipment. For all of the punching power of the Blitzkrieg, more German guns were horse-drawn than truck drawn or self-propelled in the 1940 invasion of France. But the horse was not a viable means of offensive operations. It is time to recognise that helicopters are facing a similar transition.
Vertical lift has been critical to reconnaissance, anti-submarine warfare, ferrying commanders around the battlefield, evacuating casualties, resupplying forward operating bases, and moving guns into position throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The utility of helicopters, especially in the competition space, and in interventions against non-peer adversaries, which are likely to remain the bulk of military operations, cannot be doubted. However this role is fulfilled amply by the Ch-47F, an airframe that is far cheaper, and altogether more useful, than anything being considered by the ‘Future Vertical Lift’ programme. The Chinook, which first flew in 1961, remains one of the most versatile and useful helicopters on the modern battlefield.
There is one exception which must be conceded. In the Pacific theatre, the ability to rapidly island hop, securing atolls to enable access for naval assets, could genuinely benefit from extending helicopter ranges. To this end the technological improvements in performance and reliability of the Valor, over the Osprey, make it an attractive successor for the United States Marine Corps in delivering their Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations concept. But the gains in this case are simply in extending existing capabilities, and do not represent a transformation.
The Future Vertical Lift programme typifies a wider problem in military thinking. While Army chiefs around NATO recall at every opportunity that the character of war is changing, militaries persist in simply trying to replicate or refine – usually at great expense – capabilities with which they are familiar, but which fail to address the future threat environment.
Jack Watling is the Land Warfare Fellow at RUSI
Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare