Army Chief to Reopen Debate on Aviation Restructuring
The Army’s controversial plan to remove combat helicopters from the National Guard as part of a larger cost-cutting effort is nowhere close to a done deal.
The proposal was unveiled by Army leaders in 2013 and billed as a painful but financially necessary move in order to save $12 billion over the next decade. Since day one, though, the plan became a lightning rod and has created a deep rift between the Army leadership and the politically well-connected Army National Guard.
So it was no surprise when the new Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley got the question last week following a keynote speech at the annual conference of the National Guard Association of the United States in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I have to take a hard look at it,” Milley said of the aviation restructuring. It would have been tempting to pander to the audience and promise to reverse the decision, Milley said, but cautioned that he is not ready to make a final ruling. He assured the crowd that he will withhold judgment until he has a chance to review a blue-ribbon commission report on the subject early next year.
“I’m not going to stand here and say ‘I will reverse this,’” said Milley, who was sworn in as chief of staff Aug. 14. Rather than endorse the plan he inherited, Milley said he would study the issue and make up his own mind. “This was a decision made prior to my time as chief,” he said. “I will wait for the results of the national commission report. They’re studying that issue very deeply. I believe they will come back to me with solid recommendations. It’s from those recommendations from which I’ll move.”
Under the aviation restructuring plan, the National Guard would turn over its entire fleet of 192 Apache attack helicopters to the active-duty force in return for 111 Black Hawk utility helicopters. The Apaches would replace aging Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters that the Army can no longer afford to maintain.
The backlash from the Guard compelled Congress to stand up the National Commission on the Future of the Army to study the aviation plan and consider the overall structure of the service.
“I’m not shutting anything off but I’m not going to make false promises, or raise false expectations,” Milley told the NGAUS conference.
The allocation of aircraft is part of a bigger discussion taking place in the Army on the role and identify of the Guard and Reserve components in the post-war era of shrinking budgets. Milley said he generally agrees that combat units in all components "should more or less be structured the same" but noted that they are not mirror images of each other and should not be.
"Every one of our organizations is uniquely structured," Milley said. "I don't want to give you a false perception that I agree that everyone should look precisely the same because I don't, because it's not a reflection of reality. Having said that, I do believe that the National Guard is, in fact, a combat reserve."
As chief of staff of the entire Army, Milley is responsible to make sure combat reserve units are trained, manned and equipped to be able to do that function. “And that includes not only ground maneuvers in terms of infantry and armor, but that includes aviation,” he said. “So I have to take a hard look” at the aviation restructuring initiative.
He acknowledged that the decision sparked “massive amounts of emotion."
A key proponent of the aviation realignment was recently retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno. He insisted the move would result in “better and more capable formations,” in addition to being the fiscally responsible thing to do. “These are not cuts we want to take, these are cuts we must take based on sequestration,” Odierno told lawmakers last year. He rebuffed criticism that the
Army was disproportionately cutting the Guard to preserve active-duty strength, noting that that the active-duty force was taking bigger troop reductions than the National Guard.
Under the initiative, the Army would cut approximately 10,700 troops from the active and reserve ranks, and would divest nearly 800 older helicopters from the force.
Army Secretary John McHugh has defended the aviation restructuring. The blowback has been “frustrating to me,”he said last week at a Bloomberg Government gathering. “It’s a step I wish we didn’t have to take, but a step that was inescapable” given the current budget situation.