Army hunts for answers as Apaches fail in Kosovo

Readiness, training faulted as 21st-century helicopter stumbles

July 16, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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a stinging salvo, telling his superiors that the Apache pilots were not properly trained and the aircraft carried outdated equipment.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.

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