* The Army has ambitious plans to acquire next-generation aircraft as it gears up for great power competition. But uncertainty about future vertical lift programs and other modernization efforts leaves an unclear picture of what lies ahead, analysts say.
The service has about 4,300 piloted aircraft, most of which are helicopters, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The H-60 Black Hawks, AH-64 Apaches and H-47 Chinooks account for most of the rotary wing platforms.
"Their eventual replacement dominates the Army's future procurement costs," said a recent CBO report titled, "The Cost of Replacing Today's Army Aviation Fleet."
The study projects that the annual cost of replacing the systems in the current fleet would decline during the 2020s, from about $4 billion in 2018 to approximately $1.5 billion in 2027, before increasing to more than $4 billion per year through the early to mid-2030s as procurement for future vertical lift programs ramps up.
"Because the Army made considerable investments in aircraft between 2007 and 2016, relatively few aircraft are near the end of their service life, reducing the number of aircraft to be replaced during the 2020s," the report said.
Secretary of the Army Mark Esper said the service wants systems that could perform well against advanced adversaries such as China and Russia.
"What we need first and foremost is an attack reconnaissance capability," he said during remarks at the Brookings Institution. "That's an aircraft that has the speed, the range, the survivability to penetrate robust air defense systems, get deep behind the enemy and do a number of things." The future attack reconnaissance aircraft, or FARA, is the No. 1 priority for future vertical lift, he noted. The service hopes to begin procuring it by the late 2020s.
The second priority is the future long-range assault aircraft, or FLRAA, to replace the Black Hawk. The Army also needs to ponder a heavy vertical lift system that could replace the Chinook, he noted. That concept has not been as fleshed out as the FARA or FLRAA.
The Congressional Budget Office's estimates for Army aviation are subject to several sources of uncertainty, the report noted.
"The characteristics of the [FARA and FLRAA] have not been finalized, and technical challenges could change schedules, characteristics or costs," the study said. Additionally, an aircraft's retirement may be accelerated or postponed, platforms may be retired and not replaced, and new...