Congress to Delay Controversial Army Aviation Restructure Plan

By Valerie Insinna
The debate over the Army’s aviation restructure initiative is only the opening bell for what will likely be a long, painful struggle to define the roles of the service’s active and National Guard components, experts said.

Despite opposition from Army leadership, the result will likely be a congressionally mandated commission to study the proposal to reshuffle aircraft, they said.

Under the Army’s plan, the National Guard would transfer its entire fleet of 192 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to the active force in return for 111 UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters. The active component wants additional Apaches to take over reconnaissance missions currently flown by the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior — an aging scout helicopter that will be retired because the Army does not have the money to either refurbish it or buy a new platform.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno has said the initiative will save the service $12 billion, even as the price per unit of new “Echo”-model Apaches grows as a result of the Army having to stretch out its procurement plan to fit budget constraints.

The aviation restructure will result in “better and more capable formations,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee in April. “These are not cuts we want to take, these are cuts we must take based on sequestration.”

The restructure is painful, but the Army has no other options, said Daniel Gouré, vice president of the Lexington Institute. “You simply, arguably, cannot afford the cost of keeping the Kiowa Warriors flying for much longer, and you can’t afford a replacement for them. Absent that fact, this is making the best of a bad series of choices, not a good solution in the absolute sense.”

The battle over aviation assets is a symptom of a broader problem in the relationship between the active military and the National Guard, said Maren Leed, the Harold Brown chair in defense policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I sort of think of it as a marriage in crisis. The active component to some degree feels as if the reserve component has cheated on them by going to Congress, and the reserve component says, ‘Well, I had no other option, you were ignoring me and not listening to my needs,’” she said. “There’s a huge lack of trust, a huge gap that has to be overcome because ... this is not the end of the budget crisis. We’re going to have to revisit this in lots of different contexts, and we’re not on a good path to do that in a constructive way going forward.”

Besides cuts to aviation, Army leaders have also cited the need to downsize force strength. Today, National Guard troops number about 350,000. The Army plans on reducing that by 5 percent to 335,000. If sequestration is reinstated after fiscal year 2015, it will be slashed even further to 315,000. The active component will take a larger cut of about 15 percent, from 520,000 to as low as 440,000 soldiers. Sequestration would bring about a reduction to 420,000.

What’s really under debate is the identity of the Army National Guard, its duties and mission, Gouré said. With the transfer of the Apaches, the Guard will lose its attack capability, although Black Hawks are also able to engage in combat.

The Guard typically has reflected the capabilities of the active component, only on a smaller scale. Fiscal pressures likely will force a greater distinction between the two forces, he said.

“That’s not desirable, but it is inevitable because of the budget,” he said. “In the last decade [the Guard] really shifted very successfully from a strategic reserve to an operational reserve.” However, there is no longer enough money to keep the Guard able to fulfill that role, he added.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the subcommittee on military personnel on the House Armed Services Committee, has proposed enacting a commission to study the plan. His legislation so far has garnered 189 co-sponsors but has not been passed by the House. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced in May a corresponding Senate bill.

Congress similarly mandated a commission of former government and military officials to analyze the force structure of the Air Force. The report published earlier this year called for the active component to transfer some of its current duties and equipment to the Air National Guard and reserves.

That Congress will support a commission is inevitable, and a deeper debate about the plan could be productive, Leed said.

Although the Air Force commission may not be the best model for a study on Army aviation, it “does seem to have produced different ways for the components to interact and find a better way to communicate with each other going forward,” she said. “If that could be an outgrowth of [a commission] ... I think that’s desperately needed and really important.”

Gouré countered that a commission would be expensive, and a probable outcome is a report that would suggest cutting out the controversial but cost-saving items, such as the wholesale surrender of Apaches to the active component.

“What’s the point of a commission?” he asked. “I honestly think this is a delaying tactic or will trim the decision at the edges. So we’ll have 3,000 fewer Guardsmen cut here, 10 helicopters moved over here.”

Benjamin Freeman, a national security policy advisor for Third Way, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, believes some legislators’ support of a commission is rooted more in protecting jobs in their districts than national security strategy.

“As much as a member [of Congress] might care about the national interest, if they [the Guardsman] don’t have that job, they don’t get reelected,” he said. “If they don’t pay attention to the Guard in their own districts, in their own grocery stores, then they’re not going to get back into office.”

Odierno and Secretary of the Army John McHugh advised Congress against forming such a commission, saying the action would only pile on more costs and negatively impact the service.  

“If our restructure proposals are delayed or rejected, whether through a commission or other actions, we will be forced to take other immediate cuts to the active forces and to those programs that have already been heavily impacted, further eroding readiness and impacting manning — both civilian and military — at every post, camp and station within the U.S.,” McHugh told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

While the Army will not start transferring aircraft until fiscal year 2016, the service in 2015 needs to be able to fund and implement any changes in training that will occur as a result of the restructure, Leed explained. Freezing the proposed plan could leave Army leaders trying to address that by using operations-and-maintenance funding, which pays for readiness.

The Army will also need Guard aircraft to supplement the fleet while active component aircraft go through scheduled upgrades and maintenance, she added.

Throughout March and April, Army leaders from the active, reserve and Guard components testified to Congress about the restructure.

During presentations on Capitol Hill, Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox made the argument that Guard Apache units have a lower readiness rate than active units because of their shorter training period. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the active duty Apache pilots handled more sophisticated combined-arms and counterinsurgency missions, while Guard AH-64s were largely relegated to missions that required less training, such as escorting logistics convoys, according to information she presented.

McHugh told Congress that a high readiness level was especially important for Apaches, which “have to be ready to go out the door the first day.” The training for attack missions is one of the most complex in Army aviation and will become more so once AH-64s team with unmanned aircraft to take over the reconnaissance role, he added.

Gen. Frank Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau, has largely avoided making any public statements against the plan.

“As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we have fought and we have discussed many, many times these topics,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April. Grass had given his advice, and “the decision has been made.”

Other officials have not been so tight lipped. Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire, the adjutant general for Arizona, said the state’s Guardsmen and its 24 Apaches flew the full spectrum of combat operations in Afghanistan.

“On one rotation they provided the sole Apache capability for an entire region of the country. They did this with a flawless safety record,” he wrote in an editorial for the Arizona Daily Star newspaper. One out of every five Arizona Guardsmen will lose their jobs if the Apaches are moved to the active Army.

“In a fair discussion about cost savings, the National Guard — the most cost-effective component of the Army — should see an increased role in national defense,” he said. “Instead, amid historic budget challenges and without discussion or compelling reason, the Army intends to gut the National Guard by removing these Apaches and reducing the Arizona Army National Guard by about 800 soldiers.”

The National Guard Association of the United States believes the Army is sacrificing National Guard capabilities in order to preserve the size and relevancy of the active component, said retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett Jr., president of the association.

A commission “would show that shifting all of the Army National Guard’s Apache attack helicopters to the active component saves no money while squandering the total Army’s most experienced Apache pilots and maintainers,” he said in a statement.

Leed warned that the “lynchpin” of the restructure plan was the money saved by cutting entire fleets of aircraft and moving Apaches to the active component. Retaining some attack helicopters in the Guard would diminish those savings.

Freeman agreed, adding that if the Army transitions toward greater specialization between active and Guard capabilities, it should be an all-or-nothing move.

“The question I would ask of any proposal that would do that — that would say, ‘Well, we’re going to leave a dozen Apaches in the Guard’ — is for what purpose? What would we be doing with those Apaches that would make us better as a total force?” he asked.

Retaining a smaller number of Kiowa Warriors for the scout mission would similarly be as useful as “playing with deck chairs on the Titanic,” Gouré said.

“The real problem here is not the Army’s proposed restructuring of its aviation assets or even the size and composition … of the active and reserve components. It’s the … Budget Control Act and, in particular, the sequestration cuts,” he said. “If there’s a fight to be waged here, it should be between advocates for the military … whether on the active or reserve side and our political leaders.”

Ultimately, all Army components need to make sacrifices in order to save money for the service’s future aviation capabilities, Leed said. “There is some real potential for very dramatic improvements in rotorcraft more broadly, and we’re not going to get there if we can’t rationalize the plan that we have.”

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing, Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Policy

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