U.S. Army Europe to Request Aviation Reinforcements
The downsizing of Army aviation in Europe has gone too far, said a senior commander. As a result of an Army-wide restructuring of aviation units, the brigade that supports the European theater has seen its ranks shrink from seven down to just two battalions.
“This has created an aviation deficit in Europe,” said Col. Christopher W. Waters, commander of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, based in Germany.
The Army has sought to make up for reductions in European-based forces by sending U.S.-based units there for nine-month rotations. But the size of current rotational forces in Europe today is not enough to keep up with growing demands for NATO training and deployments across a large continent of 51 countries, Waters said Dec. 1 during a meeting with reporters.
In the coming weeks, U.S. Army Europe will be requesting additional forces beyond the currently planned rotations, Waters said.
The 12th brigade is a skeleton of its former self. It used to have 48 Apache attack helicopters and now has 24. It lost its organic fleet of 60 Black Hawk helicopters. Its fleet of 12 Chinook heavy lift choppers was reduced to eight. The fleet of 20 Black Hawks assigned to transport VIPs is down to 10. And it went from 30 medevac helicopters to six.
The cutbacks are the result of the so-called “aviation restructuring initiative” that was launched in the summer of 2013 in response to funding caps set by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
The secretary of the Army and the chief of staff approved the ARI in October 2013. The Pentagon included the reductions in its fiscal year 2015 budget. U.S. Army Europe started shedding force structure in the spring.
The restructuring was ill-timed because it coincided with the start of Russia’s aggressive incursions into Ukraine, followed by the escalation of the war in Syria and the refugee crisis that has rattled Europe, Waters said. “The Army had to make decisions to restructure, but the environment changed during the same period.”
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has suggested that he may reconsider some of the actions set forth in the ARI, and the plan is now under review by a congressionally mandated “national commission on the future of the Army.” The panel was created in response to National Guard objections to the removal of aircraft from the Guard to backfill active-duty units.
The cutbacks in the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, however, are a done deal, Waters said. “The preponderance of ARI has taken effect. I don’t expect to get force structure back in the near future.”
The 12th brigade was once the largest aviation brigade in the Army, with seven operational battalions. Since spring, three have been deactivated and two others relocated back to the United States.
The brigade’s permanent European footprint has been reduced to a headquarters, one attack battalion and one theater general support aviation battalion. All other assets are now deployed from the United States. The 12th brigade has about 1,000 soldiers and is supplemented by 350 rotational troops.
Aviation cutbacks are just one piece of the broader downsizing of the U.S. military in Europe that began in the 1990s. At the height of the Cold War, the United States had almost 300,000 soldiers based in Europe. The size of the current force there is about 27,000.
A “request for forces” will seek additional rotational reinforcements to beef up three aviation battalions next year, Waters said. “As a commander I would like to have organic capability, but frankly, I need capability and I don’t care where it comes from. If the Army solves the challenge with rotational forces, that is absolutely fine with me.”
A general support aviation battalion and an attack battalion that are still in Germany are scheduled to be reassigned to the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade based in Savannah, Georgia, by summer 2016. Waters said there is a chance that the move may be delayed because of the heightened security crisis in Europe.
The amount of rotational forces now is less than what is needed to conduct training exercises, especially battalion-level collective training, Waters said. “We are strained,” he said. “The numbers of missions we’re supporting and the geographical dispersion make it difficult to build readiness.”
Waters said he has asked for additional National Guard and Reserve support, too. And he is seeking greater contributions from NATO allies. The most urgent needs are logistics support and communications, said Waters. “The biggest deficiency we have in the 12th CAB is the ability to sustain ourselves. We lost that when we deactivated our support battalion.”
In recent months, the brigade has had to pare back its commitments, Waters said. “We’re not supporting the volume and capacity we were before. … We cannot build readiness organically. Most missions ask for companies of aircraft, so we put platoons. When they ask for platoons we put teams, and when they ask for teams we put a single ship.”