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The Obama administration recently informed Congress that it is planning to loosen controls on foreign sales of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and other weapons, possibly C-130 transports and even F-16 fighters, according to congressional aides.
The changes under consideration are raising concerns on Capitol Hill that U.S. arms will make their way to rogue states and adversaries after initially being exported to allies and friendly states.
As part of its export-control effort, the administration told congressional staff recently that it is conducting a review of the thousands of weapons now on the U.S. Munitions List that fall under the State Department’s import/export authority.
As part of the review, the administration has identified numerous items that can be moved to the less-tightly controlled Commerce Departmentcontrol list, including the helicopters and military transports.
Easing restrictions on sales of F-16s also is under consideration, the congressional aides said.
The decontrol plan will make monitoring how the systems are used and whether the arms are re-exported to states such as Iran much more difficult, the aides said.
The Obama administration launched the reform initiative in August. It calls for changing how goods and technologies are licensed and controlled for sale abroad.
Under the reform, two lists of items that require export licenses would be merged. The munitions list of strictly military items would be joined with a list of items that have military and civilian capabilities. The single list would be regulated by a single agency using a three-tier control mechanism.
According to congressional aides, the administration has prevented U.S. intelligence agencies from conducting comprehensive assessments of the security impact of the export decontrol plan.
Eugene Cottilli, a spokesman for the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, confirmed that the administration has spoken to Congress about changing rules for sales of tanks and military vehicles and soon will publish a list of proposed changes for military aircraft.
Most of the items moved from the U.S. Munitions List to Commerce’s control list “do not have an inherent military function,” Mr. Cottilli said.
The new licensing policies “will enhance national security by allowing for greater interoperability with our NATO and other allies,” he said, noting that “active weapons systems, such as fighter aircraft and attack helicopters,” will remain on the controlled U.S. Munitions List.
There are concerns among some defense experts that China’s militarywill benefit indirectly from the loosened export controls.
China has lobbied the U.S. government for years for access to Black Hawks and spare parts for its Sikorsky S-70s, a commercial version of the Black Hawk that was sold to China before its crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989 led to a ban on all sales of military goods.
China’s army “often complains that they need Black Hawk parts so they can use the helicopters for humanitarian relief efforts,” said Larry Wortzel, a former U.S. military attache who once was posted in Beijing.
“The Chinese military has used the helicopters for that purpose,” he said. “But the [army] also has used Black Hawks to move soldiers to suppress Tibetan protests and against Uighurs in Xinjiang, raising serious human-rights concerns.”
Mr. Wortzel said that during exercises on Dongshan Island in the late 1990s, China’s army used a Black Hawk to lift a 130 mm gun out to the island to simulate an artillery raid against Taiwan.
“Congress should not lift this embargo,” he said.
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs specialist, said the administration is wrong about the decontrol of Black Hawks.
“Instead of arming [China’s People’s Liberation Army] by selling new S-70 parts and C-130s, it should be putting greater pressure on Eurocopter to stop selling advanced helicopter technology to the PLA,” said Mr. Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a security-issues think tank.
Mr. Fisher said the Chinese S-70s, like their copies of the U.S. Army’s Humvee, would boost Chinese special forces’ ability to blend in with Taiwan’s S-70s and Humvees should there be an armed conflict.
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A significant aspect of the Aug. 6 shoot-down of a U.S. Army Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter by a militant’s rocket-propelled grenade in Wardak, Afghanistan, which killed all 38 Afghan and American forces onboard—25 of whom were members of U.S. special operations—is that while the bird was on a special forces mission, it wasn’t a special operations aircraft.
While such tragedies are a cost of war, and neither the helicopter nor the regular Army crew piloting it has been blamed for the incident, the shoot-down underscores two serious and long-standing concerns: inadequate protection for low-flying rotorcraft against gunfire and rudimentary rockets, and the lack of sufficient dedicated rotary-wing assets for special forces.
At a special forces technology conference in Tampa, Fla., this summer, commanders from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOC) said they were looking for more money from the services to invest in new rotary-wing aircraft. “We’re going to hopefully guide the services into giving us something that is useful for us,” said Army Col. Doug Rombough, program executive officer for rotary-wing aircraft at SOC. “We certainly don’t have the budget or funding to guide a whole new generation of aircraft.”
Special operators are putting more focus than ever on rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft needs, standing up the U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command (SOAC) at Ft. Bragg, N.C., in March, with the goal of allowing the commander of the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regt. (SOAR) to focus on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the SOAC commander focuses on the funding and equipping goals of special operations aviation. While the Boeing MH-47G Chinooks that are the workhorses of the spec op fleet are upwards of half a century old, there are much newer aircraft that spec op forces have been flying.
Beginning in 2009, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) started receiving the first of 50 planned Bell-Boeing CV-22 tiltrotor aircraft, delivery of which is scheduled to be complete by 2015. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review also laid out goals for spec op rotary-wing assets, including “165 tiltrotor/fixed-wing mobility and fire-support primary mission aircraft,” stipulating that the Army and SOC “will add a company of upgraded cargo helicopters (MH-47G) to the Army’s Special Operations Aviation Regt., and the Navy will dedicate two helicopter squadrons for direct support to naval special warfare units.”
All this is happening as the incoming head of the command—Vice Adm. William McRaven—wrote in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June that SOC’s “current operations will pressure development and limit required modernization and recapitalization efforts” of its rotary fleets. This in turn is resulting in a “lack of vertical lift capability to train [spec op] ground forces and aircrew proficiency” and is hurting the overall health and readiness of the force.
The high-hot conditions and high operational tempo at maximum weights that the helicopters are working under in Afghanistan, Rombough said, have taken a toll on the fleet. “They’re making only 15 years because of heavy use,” he said, which falls far short of the usual 20-year lifespan. When it comes to new platforms, he added, “we need game-changers . . . we are behind the power curve already if all of our aircraft hit at that same timeline.” While the Pentagon is looking for a rotorcraft capable of 170 kt., Rombough said special operators need “a minimum 200-kt. capability.”
Life cycle is one thing. Survivability in a combat zone is another. Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) launched an experimental program that borrowed a land vehicle-based gunshot detection system—Boomerang—and installed a version on a Black Hawk helicopter. Named the Helicopter Alert and Threat Termination-Acoustic (Haltt-A) program, the system’s microphones “hear” a round leave a weapon and are capable of fixing the location of the shooter. Four Hallt-A systems are deployed to Afghanistan, according to reports. But if special forces operators are to take advantage of such efforts, it’s going to be in a budgetary environment that is skeptical of new funding. SOC’s fiscal 2012 budget request is $10.5 billion—with $7.2 billion coming in the baseline and $3.3 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations budget. If enacted, this would be an increase of 7% over the fiscal 2011 budget request of $9.8 billion.
Even if spec ops doesn’t have enough rotary-wing assets to fully train with, as McRaven says, those it does have are getting old. And while SOC has installed upgrades on its aging Chinook helicopters, the high operational tempo of a decade of nonstop combat has taken its toll on the fleet.
Updates have been coming, however. In March, Boeing delivered the 61st refitted MH-47G Chinook to SOAR, as part of a multiyear service life extension program that updated the aircraft from the D and E models. SOAR should also receive eight more G models by fiscal 2015. Boeing says the upgrades will increase the platform’s life through the 2030s—when the aircraft will be almost 70 years old.
The MH-47G upgrades are significant. They give the helicopter higher-efficiency engines, improved avionics, an upgraded airframe, a suite of radio-frequency countermeasures and a refueling probe. Also included is a fully integrated digital Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS), which allows special forces operators to take advantage of better communications, navigational technologies and situational awareness capabilities, including forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and multimode radar for nap-of-earth and low-level flight.
Overall, the 160th has 184 rotorcraft in its inventory: 51 MH/AH-6M Little Birds, 61 MH-47G Chinooks and 72 MH-60M Black Hawks. The most recent Black Hawk modernization program took Sikorsky’s UH-60M aircraft from Army stocks and added CAAS, wide-chord rotor blades, an improved electro-optical sensor system and 2,500‑hp. General Electric YT706-GE-700 engines. The AH-6M Little Bird, a light utility helicopter, has been upgraded with FLIR surveillance systems and dual-flight controls.
When it comes to unmanned rotorcraft, Rombough said that while the special operations force is interested in unmanned vertical-takeoff assets—and is watching the U.S. Marine Corps program to develop an unmanned cargo helicopter—it is handing its A160 Hummingbirds to the Army’s unmanned aircraft systems office. “We’re done with our effort,” he said.
In January, SOC put out a notice advising industry that it was planning a “full and open competition” for a new mid-endurance unmanned aircraft systems platform to add to its arsenal of secret drones and surveillance equipment.
Draft versions of the request for proposals (RFP) came out in late March and early April, with a formal RFP released on April 28. Since almost everything about the program is classified—other than the fact that it exists—all that is left are hints dropped in the announcement.
Currently, the mid-endurance unmanned aircraft needs of special forces, as far as is known, are being met in part by the Boeing ScanEagle, which is referenced at the top of the solicitation. In 2009, Boeing and its subsidiary Insitu Inc. signed a deal worth $250 million to operate ScanEagle systems for special operations forces “for the next five years”—so it doesn’t look like the Scan- Eagle is going anywhere.
But what kind of upgraded capability is SOC looking to get with this new program? The public solicitation says that SOC wants to award a single, three-year, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract with a projected award this summer. And it needs the winning bidder to be capable of providing the “near-real-time feed of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance product availability from 300-900 hr. per site monthly” using “non-developmental contractor-owned and contractor-operated unmanned aircraft systems.”
The ScanEagle, for its part, has proven itself remarkably effective across a range of missions, from the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan to hunting pirates at sea—even flying from the USS Bainbridge while assisting in the rescue of the merchant ship Maersk-Alabama’s captain, Richard Phillips, who had been taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009 (a siege that ended with three Seal Team 6 snipers killing three pirates with simultaneous shots from the Bainbridge).
All of this operational experience adds up. In March 2010, it was estimated that ScanEagle was flying 22% of the 550,000 hr. logged by the U.S. military’s unmanned aircraft annually. A few years ago, a Scan- Eagle was even launched off a special warfare boat by Navy special forces.
In the decade since 9/11, the manpower of U.S. special operations has nearly doubled, its budget nearly tripled and overseas deployments are up four-fold. While all this has happened, the force’s rotary-wing assets have grown incrementally and upgrades have not kept pace with demand. With the end strength of the Army and Marines set to decline in coming years, and budgets expected to tighten while the operational tempo for SOC stays high, equipment will be further stressed, something that makes leadership nervous.
A Special Operations Command MH-47 helicopter practices roof drops at Ft. Bragg, N.C. The spec ops rotorcraft fleet is stressed by the high tempo of operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
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Flooding along the Missouri River has headed eastward toward central Missouri, but officials say so far it doesn’t appear to be as threatening as it was in northwest Missouri.
US Army black hawk helicopter crews from the Missouri National Guard are flying in sandbags to stop the water’s flow. The UH-60 black hawks dropped about 150, one-ton sandbags to prop up the sugar creek levee near Waverly, Missouri in Atchison county.
A surge from dam releases, along with water from recent rainstorms, started pouring over levees in two counties overnight Saturday. All that extra water caused flooding and prompted evacuations.
Floodwaters nearly overran levees in Ray County, and sandbagging and levee repairs continued near Orrick and Hardin. Tom Waters, president of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District, told The Kansas City Star that a section of levee in Carroll County has also been damaged.
But he said the effect in mid-Missouri would not likely be as bad as it has been in northwest Missouri, where it displaced hundreds of people and flooded thousands of acres of farmland.
Amtrak has also suspended some of its service between Kansas City and St. Louis because of flooding along tracks in the region.
In Norborne, farmers were racing to shore up a crumbling levee with giant soybean seed bags filled with more than 2,000 pounds of sand.
But getting the sandbags in place on the Sugar Tree levee is another matter. The levee along the Missouri River in Carroll County is too soft to bear heavy equipment.
The levee near Norborne protects thousands of acres of farmland. And farmers don’t want to see the land swamped in a year when they’re getting good prices for good crops.
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On Feb. 17, CAE Australia announced that a major upgrade to the Australian Army’s S-70A Black Hawk full-flight and mission simulator (FFMS) has been completed on-schedule and recently entered service for the Australian Army.
CAE Australia, prime contractor under the Management and Support of the Australian Defense Force’s Aerospace Simulators (MSAAS) contract, upgraded the S-70A Black Hawk FFMS with electronic warfare capabilities. The S-70A Black Hawk electronic warfare upgrade included the addition of a new missile warning systems, countermeasures dispensing system, and missile warning sensors. CAE also recently completed a visual upgrade of the simulator by adding the CAE Medallion(TM)-6000 image generator.
Peter Redman, Operations Director, CAE Australia Pty Ltd, said “These upgrades provide the Australian Army with enhanced training capabilities and help ensure concurrency with the Army’s fleet of Black Hawk helicopters.” Redman also said “We are pleased we have been able to deliver this upgrade on-time and with no simulator downtime during the upgrade program.”
CAE Australia was able to perform the upgrade under CAE’s Authorized Engineering Organization (AEO) Letter of Authority. As a certified AEO, CAE is delegated design authority for performing engineering upgrades on in-service simulators for the Australian Army, Navy and Air Force.