Army aviation has been in the fight now for more than a decade, and as the drawdown in Afghanistan continues, commanders say it would be wise to remember the lessons learned during those years.
That was the common theme of four Army aviation commanders who spoke at the Association of the United States Army’s Institute of Land Warfare Army Aviation Symposium in a panel discussion titled "Aviation in the Fight: At Home and Down Range."
Ensuring soldiers have adequate training is vital before deploying in combat, said Col. Frank M. Muth, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade during the Iraq drawdown in 2010.
His brigade gradually assumed control of all Army aviation elements throughout Iraq that year and "although we never dropped a mission, we had a lot of growing pains," he said.
His air assets were spread thin throughout the country, he said, and his medevac crews flew in "terrible weather with low visibility in many life-or-death situations."
Some things he said needed improvement included pre-deployment training that better replicated scenarios soldiers might face, with greater detail and intensity built in.
Also, ensuring soldiers know exactly what their roles and responsibilities will be once they arrive in theater. And, ensuring aircraft are properly configured for mission requirements.
Looking to the future, Muth said soldiers need to "better synchronize their training" with other Army elements "and ensure those training dollars and time are wisely spent," with clear outcomes in mind.
Muth currently is director of materiel, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8.
"The Army pioneered the concept of medevac by helicopter, but it has basically remained unchanged since Vietnam," Col. Michael Claybourne, commander, 244th Aviation Brigade, U.S. Army Reserve, said.
The Army’s medical training and qualifications are not standardized across the aviation community he said, adding that he’s aware of medics "who never cared for seriously ill or injured persons being deployed to combat."
Claybourne said the Army is taking steps to ensure training and certification requirements are standardized and that more steps are being taken to ensure the injured and wounded get the best care possible in a timely fashion.
For example, he said medical flight personnel will be receiving continuing education – something sorely lacking previously – as Army aviation begins partnering with hospitals and medical staff to ensure soldiers get the education and training they need.
The Army’s aviation special operations community must coordinate better with the rest of the Army’s conventional aviation as well as with conventional ground forces, Col. John W. Thompson, chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group, and former commander, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) in Iraq, said.
"Special operations aviation has often been isolated in areas far from conventional forces," Thompson said, referring to pre-deployment training, as well as combat operations in the early years of both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Adding, "But as the theaters matured and operations increased in number and complexity, that mindset changed; but we still lacked rigorous coordination, especially as missions grew in the COIN environment."
COIN is short for "counterinsurgency" operations, whereby soldiers and coalition partners help locals build up their institutions and infrastructure with the goal of increasing security through strengthened communities.
Over time, the special operations aviation community has built valuable relationships, forged during the rigorous demands of combat, he noted, adding that it would be a shame to "lose what we gained from those relationships" as the Army transitions to peacetime.
"The [National] Guard today can no longer be looked at as an operational reserve," Col. John O. Payne, commander, 77th Theater Aviation Brigade, Army National Guard, said.
Payne recounted how over 20 years in the guard he saw Vietnam veterans replaced by those who entered the all-volunteer Army, many of whom deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11.
"After their first deployments, many decided they had adequately served their country and got out," he said.
These soldiers were replaced by many who became soldiers after 9/11, he said.
These "youngsters had significant obstacles to overcome, but where mentored by those who had come before them," he said.
He added that "these kids are good, very good. They were not itching to be deployed" but they went and did what was expected of them.
As the Army transitions to peacetime and resources become scarcer, "they will not be content" with the status quo and mediocre training, he said.
Adding, "They want to be challenged and it is up to us to ensure they are so they are ready for any eventuality."
(Editor’s note: This article is based on a story by David Vergun, Army News Service.)