DEFENDING AMERICA
BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
21 March 2000

"CEO TYPES FLUNK THE FLYING COURSE"

The helicopter is as important to a modern army as reinforcements on horseback were to George Custer's 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Because Custer's relief element failed to show, his scalp -- along with those of most of his "Gary Owen" troopers -- disappeared.

During the recent war with Serbia, U.S. Army helicopters also didn't get to the fight on time. They took weeks to deploy, and once they got near the battlefield, the crews were so badly trained that after accidents destroyed two Apache gunships and killed two pilots, the brass decided the much-hyped Apache "Serb-killer" that was going to be our secret weapon was not good to go.

This time around there were no missing scalps -- just body bags. And yet, the many problems dealing with Army aviation seem to have been swept under the "too-hard-to-solve" carpet.
Following this debacle, the complete multibillion-dollar Apache fleet was grounded because of a maintenance glitch. Months later, all the birds still aren't operational.
And it's not just Apache outfits that are in trouble. The same sort of problem has zapped every aviation unit within the U.S. Army.

Scores of aviators and crew members say that never in the history of Army aviation have things been so screwed up. Nor has morale been so low among the crews and hard-core pilots -- read warrant officers who do nothing other than fly and maintain aircraft, as opposed to the commissioned officers who float in and out and mainly haven't a clue.

Luckily, at the moment there's no enemy that riot gear and gas masks can't handle. But it won't always be this way. And like Custer's no-show reinforcements, choppers will be needed on some future killing field to give troops in contact the right kind of muscle to get the job done.

Uniformly, the old pros in the Army flying business blame this funk on bad senior leadership.

A chief warrant officer with almost 5,000 flight hours says the problem is inept leadership: "My first company commander in aviation was a very senior major with 1,500 flight hours, a Distinguished Flying Cross and 35 air medals. He smoked cigars, drank whiskey and had a good left hook. We all admired him and knew he was capable of doing whatever he asked us to do. When he had a problem with one of us, we got the chewing in person, loud and clear. He was a leader.

"What I've seen over the last 10 years is that our leaders have a pitifully small amount of experience and aren't prepared to command. ... Because of the policy of rotating commissioned officers through staff jobs, we have officers who are incapable of and unwilling to lead soldiers. They hide behind their office doors and run their units via e-mail.

"I saw my commander in Bosnia getting chewed out by the battalion commander for not answering his e-mail -- until it was pointed out that nobody in the line units had Internet access.

"This same 'commander' briefed us that he was going to run his battalion like the CEO of a corporation, and that he didn't have time to get to know his soldiers.

"Folks, the Army isn't a corporation! Our job is to train and be prepared ... to kill our fellow man at the risk of our own lives. And you can't inspire people to do that through e-mail."

Another savvy aviation soldier told me that two years ago the 3d Infantry Division's Apache battalion was replacing drivetrain gearboxes like rolls of toilet paper because of corrosion from the salty Savannah, Ga., environment -- at a cost of $1.5 million per aircraft every 250 flying hours.

A civilian contractor spotted the problem and suggested a fix that would have a one-time cost of $25,000. "It took the managers a year to decide to go with the program, during which time they lost another $10 million in components to corrosion," the sky soldier said.

From all reports, billions of bucks are being flushed down the drain by corporate-minded managers pretending to be Army aviation leaders. Hey, it's only money. But come to think of it, it's your money.