WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Jan. 10, 2008) - Army aviation continues to successfully "fight the fight," in support of operations, while simultaneously transforming and modernizing its forces. That was the consensus of a panel of aviation commanders at the Association of the United States Army's Institute of Land Warfare Aviation Symposium and Exposition.

"As rapid as innovations occur, we are challenged daily with updating our doctrine, improving our training and sharing lessons learned, all while continuing operations in theater," said Col. Kevin W. Mangum, commander of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), at Fort Campbell, Ky. "We have the systems, we just have to continue to train with them," he added.

In recent years, the combination of a significantly increased operational tempo and advancing technologies has presented various challenges, said the commander of the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, which redeployed from northern Iraq recently back to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

"We are making vast improvements materially, but our training capacity to integrate new systems into the war fight as soon as they are received needs to be enhanced," Col. A. Thomas Ball Jr., 25th CAB commander. "It is vital that we have the ability to train before we are, 'in the box.' Not individual training, but collective training to synergize as a unit." Ball praised training exercises, which he says allow simulation and integration of everything from personnel and materials to system utilization.

Challenges aside, Ball said improvements include the development and continued refinement of advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and manned aircraft equipped with aerial sensor platforms have proven invaluable in theater, he said.

"We can look at an area from thousands of meters out and see real-time what assets need to be deployed," Ball said. "We have the ability to be that far away and engage a target, removed from heavy machine-gun fire. It is amazing."

Another issue facing the aviation community is maintaining a "fix forward," capability in support of operations. "We have the money and tools, but not necessarily the engineers, machinists and others on the lines," Col. Daniel J. Shanahan, commander of the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade said.

According to Ball, even while maintaining a high operational tempo year in and year out, the system improvements and sustainments have seen them through battle. "That is a testament to our Soldiers, our contractors, and our equipment."

Mangum added that as the Army continues to employ emerging technologies it is more reliant on contractors for their technological expertise. "We could not do what we do without a large contractor footprint."

Retention is a future challenge all three commanders anticipate. "Vibrant force maintenance is a must," Shanahan said. "We need to put more money into incentives to keep our senior NCOs and warrant officers," he added.

"It comes down to retaining the best and the brightest," Mangum concurred. "They are the Soldiers with the experience, expertise and commitment needed."

All agreed that there is an Army-wide concern for the well being of Soldiers and their Families. Some Soldiers have been in theater supporting Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and various other operations three times in six years. "Soldiers, 'ruck up,' and do a great job," Ball said. "The family challenges are the biggest concerns when things like deployment schedules change. They don't have that Soldier there to assist them with things like moves, changing schools, finding new jobs. There isn't anyone to help shoulder those burdens."

As Soldiers continue to train and operate in an ever-changing environment, and their Families continue to deal with the pressures that come with deployments, commanders take lessons learned and training developed in theater and apply them to Army aviation's future role. "The best thing to come out of the fight is the teamwork of program managers and war fighters," Ball said. "We are sharing feedback and making improvements every day."