WASHINGTON -- The Army kept its Apache helicopter gunships flying during the Persian Gulf war by virtually grounding the rest of its Apache fleet to conserve scarce spare parts, congressional investigators said yesterday.
Supply officers were so concerned over the lack of parts that even pilots on the verge of combat, who fly frequently to keep their skills sharp, were ordered to cut their prewar flight time in half, investigators said.
The reason for the shortage: While the Army spent about $12 billion on the Apache program over the past 10 years, it spent nothing for wartime spare parts, said an official at the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress.
The parts shortage could prove deadly if the United States had to be ready to fight on short notice, he said. "We can keep buying parts like this, so long as we have six months' or a year's notice before the next war to get ready," said the GAO official, who asked not to be named.
Army officials argued that stockpiling Apache parts for wartime could lead to charges that the service was keeping excessive inventories on hand. "Very large sums of money would be tied up for indefinite periods of time," an Army official said.
The extraordinary steps taken by the Army to ensure that its troubled AH-64 Apache attack helicopter performed well in its first real test were described in closed-door congressional testimony by GAO officials in February. That secret testimony was obtained by Knight-Ridder this week.
To assure an adequate supply of Apache parts to Saudi Arabia, the Army limited nearly all its remaining Apache fleet to an average of four minutes of flying per day, roughly 10 percent of normal flying time, according to the GAO.
"For all intents and purposes, many of these units were grounded," Richard Davis, the GAO's top Army expert, told a secret hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversightand Investigations in February.
The Apache is designed to fly around the clock and kill enemy tanks with its long-range Hellfire missiles and 30mm machine gun, capable of carrying 1,200 rounds into battle. But during the war it routinely carried only 800 because of fears that fully loading the gun would cause it to jam, Mr. Davis said.
The Apache's targeting system also caused major problems, Mr. Davis said. "They continued to fail at high rates," he said.
Since the war's end, the Armyhas repeatedly stressed the Apache's high availability rate during its first real combat test -- about 90 percent-- without detailing how little they flew nor the unusual efforts taken to keep them airborne.
Army documents show that each of the 275 Apaches in the Middle East flew less during the first month of the war -- 15.9 hours -- than any of the other six types of Army helicopters involved. During the second month, when the ground war began, each Apache flew an average of 20.7 hours -- once again, the lowest among the seven types of Army helicopters in the theater.
Beyond grounding nearly all theApaches not in the combat zone, the Army cut from 30 to 15 hours per month the prewar flight time of each Apache in Saudi Arabia to husband spare parts.
The Army also issued emergency, unpriced contracts for spares, flew parts daily from South Carolina to Saudi Arabia and relied on 280 employees from the helicopter's builders to keep the aircraft flying in the war zone.
"The maintainers were really working around the clock," Mr. Davis said.
One congressional investigator who has reviewed Army files said that while the average AH-64 flew only 20 hours per month during the ground war, the Army had sought sufficient parts so that it could fly 41 hours per month. That's still well below the Army requirement that the aircraft fly 100 to 120 hours monthly in combat.
On "numerous occasions," Army pilots had to cancel planned missions in the middle of the war because their helicopters were not working right, Mr. Davis said.