Saturday, January 14, 2006

More than 100 helicopters lost in Iraq in 2005

Army needs $1.2b for chopper replacement
By PAMELA HESS
UPI Pentagon Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- The U.S. Army is asking the Pentagon for $1.2 billion to replace more than 100 helicopters it lost to hostile fire, accidents and training incidents in 2005, according to senior officials.

Included in that request will be funding for 13 Apache Longbows destroyed in accidents or by enemy attacks, said Brig. Gen. Edward Sinclair, the commander of the U.S. Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker.

"The enemy has cost us some, we've lost some to terrain," said Sinclair Thursday. "We haven't had them all replaced."

The latest loss was a Black Hawk UH-60 helicopter, its crew of four and eight passengers. It went down Jan. 7 in bad weather in northern Iraq, killing everyone on board. Sinclair said that crash was caused by bad weather, not enemy action.

But Iraq's insurgency does take a toll on the fleet. Each month there are roughly 15 to 20 attacks on Army helicopters with small arms fire, shoulder-launched missiles and improvised explosives; most of them do no hit their targets. However, the prevalence of manpads in Iraq has caused the Army to install cockpit missile warning system suites on its aircraft, said Sinclair.

The money is part of the Army's request for supplemental funding in 2006. The supplemental appropriation request -- now an annual exercise between the Pentagon and Congress -- could reach as high as $100 billion. Not all the money would be for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; hurricane and natural disaster recovery funds are likely to be included.

The Iraq war costs about $5.5 billion a month. The Afghan war costs just under $1 billion, according to Pentagon estimates. That does not include the cost of buying replacement and additional equipment for troops.

The Iraq war is particularly hard on Army aviation, said Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, director of the Aviation Task Force in the Army's operations office. Helicopters and crews have logged more than one million combat hours over the last four years, and choppers are aging three to five times faster than they would in normal peacetime operations. The pace of operations has been five times the standard tempo of operations.

The pace and cost of Army aviation operations is not likely to diminish anytime soon, warned Mundt. While the Army as a whole is looking forward to drawing down its forces in Iraq this year, aviation assets will not be proportionately pulled out. The Iraqi army has no helicopters of its own for close-air support, troop movement or medical evacuation, so those missions will remain with the Americans.

The Army has spent at least $2.6 billion refurbishing some 2,400 aircraft after their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking the helicopters completely apart to fix what's broken and replace what is worn out. There are about 500 aircraft at work in the two wars at any one time.

Sinclair offered one example to demonstrate the difficulty of operating in Iraq: When one already cleaned and stripped helicopter was taken apart to be refurbished, more than 230 pounds of sand sifted out of the cockpit.

Army repair depots are running at 82 percent of their capacity, compared to 50 percent capacity before the war.

Despite the heavy wear and tear, Army officials said the helicopter fleet has held up well: there has not been a single fleet wide grounding order for a mechanical problem.

Army aircraft have a respectable 77 percent mission-capable rate in Iraq, according to Loren Thompson, a defense analyst and President of the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

But he warns the pace can not be maintained indefinitely.

"The Bush Administration has done a good job of funding near-term sustainment requirements, but it needs to offer a more complete explanation of how it plans to replace the prematurely aged fleet of combat systems that eventually will depart Iraq," he stated Thursday.

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