Army Aviation: Alternatives to the 10-year Service Obligation
The US Army is losing pilots at an alarming rate. About 10% of its active force per year exits the service for other opportunities, far beyond what it can hope to replace with new Aviators. Army Aviation leaders have taken steps to address these losses, like attempting to improve quality of life by reducing the number of Combat Training Center (CTC) rotations Aviators may attend in a year. Discouragingly, the Army has increased the active duty service obligation (ADSO) for all Army Aviators to ten years. This attempt to shore up pilot numbers will only serve to increase the imbalance in junior and senior Aviators. The compulsion to remain in service will not affect the underlying issues that cause Aviators to leave the service.
In my four years in a Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Lewis, Washington, I’ve supported conventional and special operations units, trained at both JRTC and NTC, and seen certain recurring trends in the aviation community. These trends lead to far too many Warrant Officers and Commissioned Aviators departing active service, even though they didn’t necessarily want to. It is my hope that any or all of these suggestions below can generate conversation that will help to “tip the scales” back towards the retention of trained Army Aviators, without relying on the brute force of an ADSO. In the following paragraphs, I lay out several ways that Army Aviation leaders can improve their efforts to retain already skilled Aviators, rather than continue the focus on accessions to fill retention shortfalls.
Stop sending pilots away
Senior Army leadership touts many bonuses and incentives that improve Aviators’ quality of life. However, these incentives are too impersonal to be effective for most. The move to reduce the total number of CTC rotations to a maximum of two per Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) per year misses the reality of how CABs staff their respective aircrews. Often, a CAB will task mid-level and experienced Aviators to augment multiple CTC rotations, while the unit as a whole never attends more than two annual rotations. The result from this schedule is that experienced Aviators often attend three or even four CTC rotations in a year. One way to fix this issue and make such a measure more effectively address its intent is to personalize this two-CTC limit. Specifically, identify each Aviator and hold this limit to them personally, rather than the unit as a whole. Saying “CW2 Smith will not attend more than two CTCs per year” is different from saying the unit as a whole will not attend more than two a year.
There’s a numerical problem that then arises, however. Aviation units are rarely ever the training audience at CTCs; they are there to support the ground commander and provide them training as part of the combined arms team. But there are simply too few CABS covering too many rotations. There are 10 full CABS (not including 12th in Germany, and 2nd in Korea) that need to cover training for the 25 CTCs scheduled in FY 22. Subtract 1 other unit on the continuous Atlantic Resolve rotations (granted, the withdrawal from Afghanistan does free up an additional CAB to go to CTCs), and you have 9 CABS covering 25 Active Duty BCT rotations. That works out to roughly 2.7 rotations per CAB per year. In order to make the aforementioned solution work, and a CTC-limit to Aviators, something’s “gotta give:” the Army can either reduce the overall number of CTC rotations (apparently already in the works), or reduce the number of rotations that have aviation support. My entire experience has been from an Assault unit, and it was clear from supporting heavy and Styker BCTs that these units are generally less reliant on rotary-wing support than light units. If not eliminating rotations entirely, the Army (FORSCOM) can reduce the aircraft package to a platoon or lower, thus still providing some integration with aviation while also reducing the burden. Either way, in order for individual Aviators to attend no more than 2 rotations a year, fewer rotations are going to be able to integrate with helicopters.
We must remember, however, that CTCs are not the only training events that keep Aviators away from their families. Saying “CW2 Smith will not be away from home more than X months out of the year, for any reason,” accounts for the possibility that the Aviator may attend two CTC rotations and have field training exercises or gunnery or a Warfighter Exercise that also takes him or her away from home for weeks or months. These recommendations are not to suggest that Aviation should not go to CTCs or train in the field at all. But with 31 Active BCTs in the US Army, which averages less than 1 rotation per year for ground BCTs, far above the 2.7 CABS are on the hook for yearly. The numbers just don’t work, and aviation-supported CTCs should be reduced, if not completely brought in line with the frequency of BCT rotations. By both personalizing a “time at home” guarantee to each Aviator and generalizing it to more than just CTCs, Army leadership will go a long way to dramatically improve Aviator quality of life, and ultimately Aviator retention. This may seem like special treatment compared to other branches: more on that below.
Yes, Aviation is different, and that’s OK
Non-pilot-related duties plague the active aviation force. Between additional duties and Aviation Resource Management Survey (ARMS) inspections, Army Aviators often find themselves struggling to make their minimums required by regulation. So all-encompassing is Army Aviation leadership’s desire to make the branch “just like everyone else,” that junior Pilots struggle to maintain basic proficiency in their aircraft, instead devoting their time to additional duties and requirements the rest of the Army must meet.
While it is true that all Army units have non-mission burdens—Tankers don’t spend every minute at the range, Airborne units don’t jump every day, and MI units have to tend to the motor pool–the unique training requirements to make Army Aviators, along with the perishable nature of flying skills, necessitates an exception. Those that believe additional duties are simply a way of life in the Army, for all branches, fail to acknowledge that Aviation is different. In fact, Army leadership has already—in its own way—acknowledged that flying a helicopter is not like anything else other Army branches do: AR 95-1’s requirement for a commander’s crew endurance program. Flying a helicopter is not like going on a ruck march or going to an M4 range; it requires far more practice, skill, and focus than most other Army tasks The timelines for training Aviators also makes a case for separate treatment: with Flight School XXI lasting anywhere between 14-24 months (depending on airframe and instructor availability), it is the longest training pipeline for officers by six months (Cyber BOLC is 37 weeks). Both the length of initial training and the need to continually maintain flying skills demonstrate that Aviators are far too well-trained, and therefore far too valuable of a resource, to encumber with the number of additional duties that currently exist.
If these duties cannot be reduced to allow Aviators to focus on flying, then branch could embed primary support MOS’s in each aviation company. Altering the MTOE to allow such positions would at least shift the burden to someone who a) signed up to do supply/armory/CBRN work and b) is formally trained to do such work. The addition of one or two more soldiers/contractors to flight companies likely would not dramatically increase the accountability burdens on company-level leaders, and their company’s pilots would reap the benefits of having skilled and efficient personnel in these positions.
Moreover, Army Aviation leadership should prevent junior Aviators (commissioned and warrant) from having an additional duty until they make Pilot-in-Command. This change will ensure junior pilots have time to focus on aviation, rather than spending the vast majority of their time learning Additional duties like supply can be covered in professional military education, particularly the Captain’s Career Course and Warrant Officer Advanced Course, which will provide the necessary depth for more senior aviators to have the context they need as they move into planning roles.
Another way to protect junior Aviator’s development is to add a recommended technique to ATP 3-04.23 “Army Aviation Platoons”, which as it stands now does not dictate how additional duties should be assigned in the flight companies. Specifying that a PI’s goal is to achieve Pilot-in-Command status, and all else is secondary until that occurs, will go a long way to ensure that he/she is not saddled with arduous amounts of work doing other things. Further, including that platoon leaders and commissioned staff Aviators also should not be saddled with so many duties as to preclude progression as an Aviator is essential. Whether it’s with support MOS soldiers, contractors, or remanding all but the most critical duties to the battalion level, including such guidance in doctrine is a good start to ensuring pilots can focus on garnering improving their individual aviation proficiency, something they consistently desire.
The ARMS inspection is overly burdensome
A vast majority of these additional duties are inspected biennially in the ARMS inspection, which should be significantly reformed. No other branch of the US Army has such an inspection. Certainly, other combat arms branches have Command Deployment Discipline Program (CDDP) and Command Supply Discipline Program (CSDP) inspections, but these examples are not nearly as far-reaching and momentous as ARMS. Among a group of 13 Aviation Captains, from seven different CABs across the globe, nearly 100% admitted that the ARMS inspection is most problematic simply because its guidelines aren’t adhered to, save for the few months leading up to the inspection. The requirements are onerous, to say the least. Personal anecdotes where entire years-worth of Safety and Standardization Council meetings minutes are “memo’ed away” (the act of seeking a formal reprieve from the ARMS grader) or Aviation Life Support (ALSE) programs are stood-up just months before the inspection, substantiate the reality that whatever the ARMS guide lays out for requirements, they are rarely followed in actuality. These problems are not localized to just one CAB or one location and create the unfortunate impression that the ARMS inspection exists for its own sake, rather than to ensure CABs are adhering to already extant regulations.
Combining additional duties with a momentous inspection like ARMS is often too much to handle, and certain Aviators spend the weeks (or unfortunately, even months) leading up to the ARMS inspection without flying. Some categories could be eliminated. There are currently 12 ARMS categories, and eliminating POL, NVGs and Supply from the inspectable categories would significantly reduce the additional duties burden on Aviation units, without a loss in compliance. Keep in mind; just because these categories are eliminated does not mean that their governing regulations would go away. Eliminating them from the ARMS inspection would simply allow aviation units the leeway to inspect their own programs on their own schedule and a less-standardized, rigid manner. This way, there would be little impact to Army aviation’s efficiency or accountability while responsible personnel could focus more on flying.
During my time as a Shops Platoon leader, I became intimately familiar with the Petroleum Readiness (POL) requirements each Army Aviation hangar must abide by. A mechanical failure due to POL problems is more impactful, and potentially more life-threatening, for aircraft compared to ground vehicles. Therefore, eliminating an ARMS category for POL will not lead to flagrant waste or abuse; there are too many checks and balances in place already for this critical area.
Similarly, the NVG additional duty is rife with checks and balances that make removing it from the ARMS inspection prudent. While it may vary unit-to-unit, in my experience, we had semi-annual NVG inspections of the entire inventory, as well as mandatory inspections each time an individual set is turned into the ASB for maintenance (much more often than every six months). The requirement to keep the goggles serviceable and ready for flight operations ensures that the NVGs will be cared for. Adding an ARMS checklist to verify that a company NVG representative has “access to a current reference library,” among other administrative requirements, is redundant bureaucracy that takes Aviator’s time away.
Of the three categories discussed here, supply is without a doubt the most heavily inspected. With CDDP (Commander’s Deployment Discipline Program), CSDP (Commander’s Supply Discipline Program), as well as unit-specific inspections (16th CAB had BDE-level IPRS for numerous different supply functions), supply is perhaps the section that would be easiest to remove precisely because there are so many requirements, and therefore, so many checks already occurring throughout the year. As the ARMS guide states, “The FORSCOM ARMS Guide is neither a regulation nor regulatory in nature. The Guide questions are based on requirements stated in regulations and various other written directives.” If the regulations already exist, why can we not also delegate the enforcement of those regulations to the Brigade level, with reporting requirements to USAACE? Or, take a different approach: certain parts of the supply checklist are already denoted “NOT GRADED;” why not do so for the entire checklist? Doing so, particularly for supply, will remove burdensome paperwork requirements (making massive binders for ARMS inspectors to review) without removing the other accountability enforcement mechanisms already in place.
This change will not occur easily; as it stands now, there is a major disconnect between the average Aviator and aviation senior leaders when it comes to additional duties. Look no further than the 2019 congressional report on pilot shortfalls, which asserted that Army warrant officers were a “well-established pathway” that provides “continuous flying […] with minimal […] additional duties.” This is wholly untrue. Aviation warrant officers fulfill many of the additional duties in flight companies, and the time requirements for these duties—particularly when an ARMS inspection is approaching—are astounding, not “minimal.” The steps listed above are a potential way to ensure Aviators feel that they are accomplishing the job they signed up to do. To continue to burden them with additional duties only furthers the impression that Aviators sign up to do one job and end up doing another, leading to negative impacts on retention across the force.
Being “busy” isn’t “being broken”
Some suggest that getting rid of additional duties won’t change the limitations to flying Aviators face because the Flying Hour Program (FHP) more commonly gets in the way. This misses the point. Each CAB in the Army gets a certain amount of allotted flight hours each FY, called a Flying Hour Program, as outlined in AR 95-1, that is then further sub-divided among the different battalions. While it certainly could be different for Attack (AH-64) units, these hours never once restricted the amount of flying my unit conducted (save for a brief three-week period in FY 21 when we thought we were getting a 20% cut). And while it’s true that maintenance limitations have restricted flight hours in the past (crew chiefs are the primary maintainers of Army aircraft), that’s still not the same as being too busy with additional duties. Keeping pilots busy with non-flying tasks is different than them not having an aircraft ready to fly, or not having the FHP hours to fly it. If the latter is the case, they can still study, conduct Aviator academics, or go to the flight simulator. With the time-commitment of an Arms-room inspection or Commander’s Supply Discipline Program (CSDP) inspection, their focus is taken from aviation for large periods of time.
“Aviation Officer,” not “pilot”
Perhaps one of the most frustrating rejoinders to these suggested reforms is that the duty titles for commissioned officers is “Aviation Officer,” not “Pilot,” with the clear intimation being that there is more expected of lieutenants than warrant officers when it comes to non-flying duties. Doctrine provides the clearest response: DA PAM 600-3, which states that “the key milestone in a lieutenant’s development should be attaining Pilot-in-Command status. In doing so, lieutenants will acquire […]experience[…] that will serve them well in future assignments.” Commissioned officers have the same expectation to make PIC that warrant officers do, and often on a much more truncated timeline. The PAM continues: “Lieutenants should serve 18 to 24 months in a platoon leader position.” Of the 7 YG 2016 officers in my unit, not a single one received more than 12 months in a flight platoon, and 2 only ever filled non-MTOE “XO” positions (essentially an excess Lieutenant in the company). The deleterious effects of the limited time Lieutenants have in a flight company is compounded with the fact that 9 of 11 CABs as of JAN 2021 were over 100% MTOE on (UH-60) Lieutenants. The result is a steep hill to climb for most commissioned Aviators seeking to make PIC. Warrant officers may get multiple years to reach PIC status. “Aviation Officers” do not, which only lends further credence to the necessity to limit additional duties for all PIs, not simply Warrant Officers.
Realistically, many of the non-flying duties Lieutenants have are harder to eliminate because they are not named. Commissioned officers may find their time consumed not by Arms Room inspections or CBRN layouts, but rather making CONOPs for ranges and spreadsheets for immunization rodeos, and “day-to-day” operations. The ubiquitous nature of non-flying duties for Lieutenants has become so accepted that it is unfortunately expected by many. One solution is to solidify the “executive officer” position in the flight company MTOE, allowing a third lieutenant to take some of the operating burdens away from the Commander and Platoon leaders, while giving another commissioned officer a chance to work in the flight company. Another solution is to reduce the rigid timeline constraints on commissioned officers to attend PME. Officer career guidance mandates that commissioned Aviators “will” attend the Captain’s Career course before reaching two years as a Captain, which means as soon as a Lieutenant arrives on station post-flight-school, the clock starts in a way it doesn’t for warrant officers. The Army should give them as much of a chance as possible to fly and make PIC. A lieutenant’s goal is still to make PIC, just as it is a junior Warrant Officer’s goal. With an attitude that expects lieutenants to do more administrative work than warrant officers, we do a disservice to Aviators just as passionate about attaining technical expertise and experience.
A classic bait-and-switch”
Overall, reforms like increasing the ADSO to 10 years will not address the underlying issues that make Army Aviators unhappy and portend future retention issues for the Aviation branch. Rather than attempt to improve Aviators’ quality of life, senior leaders have applied another band-aid by simply resorting to force. Why fix problems that make Aviators unhappy when leaders can simply force them to stay in longer? For those that argue that these Aviators sign their contracts willingly, I counter that Army aviation is misleading prospective Aviators as well about what their job will truly entail. Only after they sign the dotted line, obligate themselves, and reach a CAB is the nature of daily life as an additional-duty-officer-first, pilot second, revealed to them. Too many remark that there is ambiguity in every profession, and every profession has people that are unhappy; in the unique circumstances where persons are legally forced through a decade-long service obligation to stay in, Army Aviation, in turn, has a unique obligation to make it clear to prospective Aviators what precisely they’re signing up for, and make things more bearable where they can.
These remedies will not fix everything. There will be a delay, too, in determining whether these reforms have their intended effect. But by taking these small steps above, Army Aviation can help itself and correct course on retention issues. If it’s true that Aviators “aren’t leaving because of [the] money,” then senior leaders will need to get much more creative to improve Aviator’s quality of life. We can give Aviators more time back by reducing CTC rotations and severely limiting their additional duties. And, we can acknowledge that Aviators are different from many other conventional Army branches, both because of their training requirements to fly aircraft and their desirability in the civilian sector, and look at reducing the number of unrelated training requirements placed before them. The ARMS inspection isn’t going anywhere, either, but we can make it less imposing by eliminating certain already-well-monitored sections. The 10-year service obligation is the result of a numbers-related calculus related to Army manning and will not address the problems that make Aviators leave. Army Aviation Leaders should first look inward to reduce retention shortfalls before resorting to a contractual obligation. The reforms suggested above will ensure Army Aviators stop looking elsewhere to do what they signed up to do: fly aircraft.
Patrick Hoffinger is an active-duty Captain and a 2016 United States Military Academy graduate. An Aviation Officer and UH-60M Blackhawk Pilot-in-Command, he served at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA for 4 years. His previous assignments include Company Executive Officer, Component Repair Platoon Leader, and Assistant Operations Officer for 2-158 Assault Helicopter Battalion. He is currently stationed with the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Drum, NY.
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