Brig. Gen. David Francis, US Army, the director of US Army Aviation, discusses preparing the service’s aviation forces to operate in an ever more contested environment, readiness and retention, and making hard program choices with Defense & Space Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Army Aviation Association of America’s 2019 conference and tradeshow in Nashville, Tenn. Our coverage is sponsored by Bell and Leonardo DRS.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Nashville, Tennessee for the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference, the number one gathering of U.S. Army aviators from around the world, including battlefield aviators from countries across the planet. Our coverage here is sponsored by Bell and Leonardo DRS, and we’re honored to have with us the very first guest who’s going to set the tone for this conference, Brigadier General Dave Francis, who is the Director of Army Aviation.
Sir, it’s an honor having you on the program.
BG Dave Francis: Thanks, Vago. Appreciate you having me on.
Mr. Muradian: Let’s talk about sort of the macro story, about the adaptation of this highly experienced Army Aviation force that’s seen combat continuously now for two decades if you go to the first Gulf War — more than two decades going back to the first Gulf War. Talk to us a little bit about how you’re managing this transition. It’s a lot like after the Vietnam War where the Army had so many seasoned aviators but was going into a great power competition. We now have multi-domain operations. We’ve talked to General Wesley about that and other Army leaders, about that adaptation. Talk to us about how you’re helping transition the Army Aviation force to get it ready to operate in a much more contested environment in the future.
BG Francis: Vago, thanks for the question. I think it’s very important.
We have, as you say in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s as we were making the transition from coming out of the Vietnam War to the Army that won Desert Storm, we had several things that we had to do. One is we had to modernize our equipment. If we didn’t, if the leaders of that time did not modernize equipment, we would still be flying old helicopters, driving old tanks, and firing old weapons. They had the vision at the time to build the force that won the Gulf War.
We find ourselves at a same period in history where we have now had our current fleet of aircraft for a number of years, for several decades, and we’re going to have them for several decades beyond the current time. However, we absolutely have to make the decision now to modernize the fleet, to get ourselves and remain ahead technologically, and make sure that we have an asymmetric advantage against our peer or near peer threats of the future.
Mr. Muradian: How do you deal with some of the cultural challenges? You’ve got folks who have spent their careers operating in generally uncontested or less contested airspace. Folks were shooting at them, but not certainly anything in terms of what a China or a Russia scenario would be. Talk to us about you’re getting up that step along with the rest of the Army to build these kind of capabilities to also be able to operate much more on mission command, in an MCON Alpha environment as opposed to sort of the persistent communications that everybody’s enjoyed?
BG Francis: It’s leadership and training. The Army has always led through transitions. We find ourselves at the cusp of another transition right now. The way we get through that is by leadership and training. You’re right, we do have a force that has grown up primarily fighting in our current COIN environment in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, which is a different way of fighting.
As we look to the future where we anticipate being contested in multiple domains simultaneously, we are going to have to change the way we train our leaders; we’re going to have to change our doctrine to get to that future point where we can do that. But we have done this before and we are comfortable that we are putting the measures in place, everything from our doctrine, our training and our leader development, as well as the capabilities that we’re in the process of going after right now to field that force of the future.
Mr. Muradian: Talk to us a little bit about readiness. That was obviously a priority for former Secretary Mattis. It’s a priority for Acting Secretary Shanahan. Walk us through how you’re working up that readiness curve, because readiness has been a challenge over the last couple of years.
BG Francis: Readiness is our number one priority as General Milley has stated several times, and that has not changed. We are doing several things in Army Aviation to enhance and maintain our readiness at this point.
First, we are expanding the training base so that we are bringing up enough aviators to make sure that we’re manning all of our cockpits. We are at a time right now where we are seeing some higher attrition of our pilots than we have seen in past years. However, we’re putting several things into place to maintain the readiness and making sure that we’re retaining that key group of primarily warrant officers who are our instructor pilots, our maintenance test pilots and our safety officers and our mission tactical officers. So we are working all of those things simultaneously to maintain readiness.
But really, what we do on a daily basis to maintain readiness is we execute our aviation training strategy. This is a combat proven strategy that we have used over the years in multiple different types of missions — be it COIN or large-scale combat operations or combined arms maneuver — that is a proven, time-tested combat-proven training program that gets our aviators to where they need to be. So there has been on reduction in our execution of the aviation training strategy and that’s what we need to continue to press for as we go into the future.
Mr. Muradian: How does the training strategy cope with the exodus we’ve seen from each one of the services? You mentioned on the warrant officer side of things. From an accessions standpoint, there’s also a little bit of a challenge the Army is having in getting some of these enlisted billets filled that are key for maintenance, for example. How do you sort of work around that? And what kind of innovation do you need to work around some of those physical manpower limitations?
BG Francis: We have in the past in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, on our maintainers, I’ll address that one very quickly. We had a period of time that we were deploying and relying primarily on contract maintenance. What happened was we had a gap in capability in some of our maintainers. We have reversed that trend now where we are sending our maintainers that are getting the repetition and the expert leadership that they need to be proficient at those maintenance tasks. So that’s one of the ways that we’re continuing to build readiness into the future, by training our junior soldiers on the maintenance tasks, and then really the future leaders on how to lead maintenance organizations.
Mr. Muradian: How is the force doing overall? As the Director of Army Aviation, you have to look at all pieces of this. The family piece of it, the individual soldier piece of it, the Active, Guard and Reserve pieces as well. How do you characterize the overall health and readiness of the organization writ large?
BG Francis: I’ll tell you, Vago. I had the opportunity today to address all of the state aviation officers from all 54 states and territories as we came together today. And the primary message that went back and forth between our Active component and our Reserve component, was that we are one team. Over half of our aviation force in the U.S. Army is in our Reserve components. We absolutely require our National Guardsmen and our Reservists to handle the high OpTempo that we have. Aviation is in high demand and that’s because of the professional leaders, aviators and air crew members that we have operating throughout the force today. They have proven their worth in combat. They have proven their worth to our ground force commanders and our international partners. So I would tell you that our force is doing very well.
I have never deployed, ever, without National Guard and Reserve forces with me, and we have fought side by side for the duration of this war, and we will continue to do so in the future. I think that our relationship between all three components, particularly in Army Aviation, is as healthy as it has been, getting stronger every day.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you about the readiness construct. In this hall, I know that throughout my career covering the Army the whole debate about what constitutes readiness has been going on for decades. I ran into a friend of mine that said hey look, the same readiness construct I used in my squadron 25 years ago is the same readiness construct. Is that the right readiness construct? And we’ve heard Army leaders over time debate look, what is a better and more accurate measure of readiness? And I know that conversation is continuing now.
From your standpoint, do we have it right? If we don’t have it right, what is a better way to look at it, to more accurately gauge what actually is a combat ready unit in this modern environment?
BG Francis: Absolutely, and I think your friend’s a little dated, just to be fair. Because we have updated our aviation training strategy very recently, and in fact it’s going through a revision as we speak. So we continually update and modify our training strategy to make sure that we’re doing the right things for our soldiers and our leaders across the force. And that’s not just the flying of the aircraft, but it’s the maintenance of the helicopters and it’s all the other tasks that are involved in an aviation training strategy as well.
So A, our training strategy is solid and we continue to update it as required to meet the demands of the day. But our measure of that strategy is collective level readiness. So you may have heard that hey, it’s the number of flying hours you’re flying, or that it’s, no. It’s really a measure of collective readiness and have we gone through all the gates that we need to do to achieve collective readiness at the battalion and the brigade level. And that’s how we measure our readiness, and that is the right metric that we need to be using right now.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you two modernization questions, because I know you’ve got to get back in there.
There are a number of folks who are looking, for example, at the Block 2 Chinook decision to sort of cap the program. Long range mobility was something that was seen as an important requirement, so that program became key. Obviously those first airplanes are going to go to the 160th, understandably, and it looks like the rest of the program is on hold.
There’s a concern among some of the folks in the hall that the service has a very ambitious modernization priority that’s facing it, but whether it’s going to get the balance right between modernization and readiness and whether modernization is going to end up suffering.
So is the Chinook decision seen as sort of the leading indicator of other delays? Or is the Chinook decision actually an indicator of having to rip the Band-Aid off and say hey, we’re not going to build some more upgraded, older airplanes, but rather leap to a next generation. In which case, are we going to see, for example a Cap. Set 4 requirement come out soon?
BG Francis: Let me start by answering that multi-part question by saying this. When Secretary Mattis came out with the National Defense Strategy he clearly established that our pacing threats are against Russia and China. That caused our Army leadership to develop what we now know as the six modernization priorities. Those are the capabilities that we need to bring into the force for us to be able to meet peer and near peer competitors in the future. And hopefully we do that left of armed conflict, but if we do get into conflict that we need to be able to fight and win. Winning matters and it’s the only thing that matters.
So our modernization strategy adjusted. When you ask me well, are other things changing, there are a lot of things that are changing. Our Army leadership has looked at every single program in the U.S. Army and directed it towards those six modernization priorities. That is going to cause a shift.
So it’s not necessarily that our mind has changed that we need certain capability, but the priority of those is changing and is based on the threat. That’s what drives our modernization strategy is the threat. And if we fail to adapt then we will be behind and we will not be in the position we want to be in 2028.
Mr. Muradian: Do you, though, get into a problem given that the Army’s equipment is a lot heavier, that if you don’t have as much heavy lift on the battlefield, does that become kind of a challenge in order to execute some of these especially longer-range missions, the likes of which you’re likely to see, for example, more in Asia and as well even in a Russian context in a denied environment?
BG Francis: So there are multiple variables that go into any one of these discussions. What I would tell you is that based on the threat that we have templated out there as our pacing threats — Russia and China — that the modernization priorities are the most important things to go on.
We always have more wants than we have the resources to use to get after those wants. Therefore, we have to prioritize. As our leadership has done, they’ve prioritized the six modernization priorities and that’s going to get us the maximum capability for the resources that we have in the time frame that we need them.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you one last question which is holistic aviation. We tend to talk more about the helicopters but not the overall aviation enterprise in the Army. That’s gone through a real revolution, if you look at it over the last two decades in terms of the capabilities that have been fielded.
Talk to us about sort of the holistic, both from an ISR cargo wing, talk to us about the sort of seamless architecture that you’re trying to build for the future so that the troop gets exactly what they want when they need it in the future.
BG Francis: Our senior Army leaders have looked at everything from ISR to manned, unmanned aircraft. And I will tell you as we move into the future, we are getting out of our biases of everything has to be manned. In fact the future capabilities that we’re going to bring on here in the future, most if not all of them will be optionally manned.
What we want to do is give as many tools in the tool bag for the commander, as many arrows in his quiver that he can pull the lever on that we possibly can in the future. So giving him multiple options — manned, unmanned, you’ll even see manned/unmanned teaming, unmanned/unmanned teaming in the future I think that are going to give a much wider array of tools for the commander to deal with a specific problem set.
We can’t necessarily anticipate every problem that we’re going to encounter in the future, but we want to build tools and build the army of the future so that the commander on the ground that has to face that threat has the maximum amount of tools at his disposal to create multiple dilemmas for our enemy forces from multiple directions in multiple domains.
Mr. Muradian: Sir, thanks very much, and before we go, congratulations on the new assignment. You’re going to be going down to Fort Rucker and living the dream.
BG Francis: Yes we are, and we are very humbled and very excited to work with the best professionals in our Army.
Mr. Muradian: Extraordinary, and hopefully we can come down there and visit with you. Brigadier General Dave Francis, at least until June, the Director of Army Aviation. Sir, it’s an honor and pleasure. Thank you very much.
BG Francis: Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.