Britain is taking nearly a quarter of its 66 AH-64 helicopter gunships out of service and, in effect, putting them in storage. Britain has been cutting its defense budget and with no more operations in Afghanistan, and nothing more than occasional peacekeeping operations in the near future, taking AH-64s out of service made sense. This is not the first time Britain has sought to reduce the expense of operating its AH-64 fleet. In 2008 Britain got into trouble when cuts to its spare parts stockpiles caused difficulties in eight AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships operating in Afghanistan. The parts shortage caused some other problems as well. Back then, Britain had 67 AH-64s, and was supposed to have 144 two man crews (pilot and weapons operator). But there were only 68 crews, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) then lowered the goal to 120 crews because of budget problems. Because of parts shortages, and cannibalizing helicopters for parts, only about a third of the AH-64s were fit for service, either in Afghanistan, or for training pilots back in Britain. Crews served two month tours in Afghanistan, often twice a year. But because of all the economy moves Britain could not train enough crews or even keep eight AH-64s in combat. More spares were ordered, especially when this situation got some publicity. But once the media attention went away, the old habits returned.
These problems had been developing since the end of the Cold War in 1991. At that point most European nations sought to save a lot of money by sharply cutting defense spending. This led to low stockpiles of spare parts for many major weapons systems. As a result, the hard working British AH-64 helicopter gunships in Afghanistan ended up suffering a chronic shortage of spare parts. Because it took time to get new parts, the immediate reaction to was the removal of hundreds of parts from Britain's AH-64 fleet in order to keep those in Afghanistan in working order. Some British commanders wanted to get more AH-64s to Afghanistan, but the spare parts situation makes that inadvisable (as it would ground a large number of other AH-64s that were cannibalized.) In 2011 (three years later) the same thing happened with the Typhoon fighter bombers called on to provide air support for rebels in Libya.
Cutting back on defense spending is admirable but operations in Iraq and Afghanistan put more helicopters into the air, more often, and in very demanding (hot and dusty) conditions. This used up spare parts stockpiles (which were not large to begin with), causing many helicopters to be sidelined and often cannibalized for parts, to keep others in the air. The stockpiles were so low that there was not even sufficient time for parts suppliers to increase production and deliver the needed spares. The lack of flyable AH-64s has been a major cause of the crew shortage (machines not available for training), in addition to difficulty in recruiting suitable candidates to operate the AH-64s.
Britain is not alone in suffering from this problem. A study of the first year of the Iraq war revealed a lack of U.S. war reserve stocks. These are supplies (especially ammo and spare parts) that are stockpiled in peacetime so that, when a war comes, the troops would have adequate supplies for the first few months of the conflict. Or at least until new supplies could be ordered and delivered.
After the Cold War ended in 1991, the rather large reserve stocks were allowed to run down, or were sold off. The Cold War reserve stocks were large, and expensive to maintain. It made sense to reduce them. But not much was purchased to create “post-Cold War” reserve stocks. To compound the problem, the U.S. Department of Defense was slow to develop an effective inventory control system for wartime operations.
The military war reserve stocks were managed like there would never be a war. Strange, but true. The Afghanistan operations used so few resources that it had hardly any impact on the war reserve stocks. But Iraq gave the system a real workout, and the logistics and supply people had to make things up as they went along. The result was an expensive scramble, producing too few, or too many needed items. The lack of planning led to problems like being unable to accurately track the movement of the two million tons of supplies shipped that year. It was so bad, that some items were not even packaged properly to survive shipment overseas. Supplies weren’t the only thing that didn’t move properly. The lack of planning, and peacetime training exercises, also meant that money was often not delivered to key vendors in time. This was particularly troublesome when the vendor happened to be an air or sea freight company.
In the United States all the agencies involved in this mess pledged to set things right and sin no more. They were half right. Everyone hustled to get the system patched up and functioning for now. But in the future, the same rot and sloppiness will seep back in. That’s what has happened time and again in the past. Odds are, it will happen yet again. People like to talk about future wars, but no one likes to spend money on getting ready to buy, store and ship the needed supplies.