WASHINGTON: A major battle is brewing between the regular Army and National Guard. While Congress has frozen the planned transfer of the Guard’s Apache gunships to active-duty units, the Army is already taking steps that may make it much harder to keep the helicopters in the Guard.
The Aviation Restructure Initiative calls for all Apaches to be moved from the Guard to the active Army. That proved so controversial that Congress, in the recently-passed National Defense Authorization Act, created a National Commission on the Future Structure of the Army to evaluate not only ARI but the overall balance between active, Guard, and Reserve forces. In the meantime, the NDAA bans any Apache transfers in ’15 and limits transfers in ’16 to 48 aircraft. Of course, the commissioners need to get appointed, summon witnesses, hear testimony, reach consensus and write their report between now and February 1st, 2016.
“They can’t do anything with personnel and structure in ’15,” said retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, head of the powerful National Guard Association of the United States, for which the NDAA was a victory. “Clearly, Congress’s intent is, whatever we do is reversible.”
Still, all the other parts of the Aviation Restructure Initiative are already underway — and some of them are already irreversible. With budgets growing tighter with or without sequestration, the Army did not feel it had could wait. Nothing the service is doing between now and ’16 directly touches the Guard Apaches, but the whole intricately interlocking plan depends on the Guard giving up those gunships eventually. So while the Army’s actions don’t tie the commission’s hands, they do limit its options.
“ARI… is more than just Apache moves,” Brig. Gen. Frank Muth, the new director of the Army’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) office, said yesterday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s several other things that are already taking place and those things will continue to occur.”
“Aviation restructure is happening, and if you haven’t heard too much about it, it’s because most or all of the change is happening in the active component,” added Col. John Lindsay, director of aviation operations, plans, and training on the Army staff. “The commission is scheduled to report [to Congress] in February of ’16, and we were aware that that was a proposed date in the NDAA language from early in the process. So when we were putting together our implementation plan, we were very selective when it came to the timing [of Apache transfers]. In no way are we getting ahead of or contradicting anything that’s currently written in the NDAA.”
However, the changes underway on the active-duty side make it more difficult to stop the future changes in the Guard. For example, take the OH-58D Kiowa Warriors at Fort Rucker, Alabama, the Army’s home base for helicopter training. They’re all gone. The service has shut down OH-58 training and moved Rucker’s Kiowas to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the famous boneyard. A “warrant officer transition panel” recently reviewed all 750-odd regular Army Kiowa pilots and selected just under half of them, 350, for retraining in other aircraft. Some $1.4 billion originally allocated for Kiowa upgrades will be used to modernize Apaches and drones — which together as a “manned-unmanned team” — will replace the Kiowa in the scout helicopter role.
Where will the extra Apaches come from? The Army says they will come from the National Guard. So, if the commission wants to keep the gunships in the Guard, it will have to come up with some way to fill the Kiowa-shaped hole in the regular Army’s scout units. That’s not easy. Three successive attempts to build a new scout helicopter have failed and money’s only getting tighter.
“Ultimately, the way to solve it is with money, and you’d replace the 58-Deltas with a [new] reconnaissance helicopter,” Hargett told me. That, he noted, is not happening any time soon.
If all the Kiowas are retired, and all the Apaches do move to the regular Army, that leaves the Guard with transport helicopters. No one’s impugning the courage of those choppers’ aircrew, who often fly troops in and out of firefights. Just look at Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs when her Illinois National Guard Black Hawk was shot down in Iraq. But eliminating all the so-called “shooting” helicopter units from the Guard triggers major alarm bells for many Guardsmen.
“They would love to get us out of the combat business,” Hargett told me. The Guard and Reserve have long had a higher ratio of support units to combat units than the regular Army, on the grounds that it’s combat units that must be readiest to respond in a crisis. (The readiness of the two components is a complex and bitterly contentious question). If the Army gets to go through with its full Aviation Restructure Initiative, then helicopters will be another area where the Guard only plays a supporting role — and Hargett fears that would just be a first step.
“I know of no plan… to move any of that stuff,” Muth told me when I raised Hargett’s concerns after the CSIS event. “Is there a plan to move tanks or Brads out of the National Guard?…. Do I know of any? Do I see any across the Army at all? Absolutely not.”
Every part of the Army is shrinking, Muth and Lindsay emphasized. The regular Army is shrinking more than the Guard. In fact, Army brass want the service to shrink faster, because their great fear is a “hollow force” which has more troops than it can afford to properly train and equip. Army procurement has dropped from $20 billion in 2011 to $13 billion this year, said Muth. As a share of the budget, equipment has dropped to roughly 17 percent, well below the 22 to 24 percent typical for a budget balanced between modernization, readiness, and personnel.
But for Hargett the first priority is keeping personnel, even if you have to cut readiness and modernization. While current plans call for the regular Army to shrink to 450,000 soldiers and the Guard to 335,000 — sequestration would force those figures down to 420K and 315K respectively — “I think 490, 345 is the right solution,” said Hargett. In that, he notes, he’s in agreement with Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno.
“We’ve just got to figure out how to pay for it and how to balance,” Hargett went on. Here’s where he crucially diverges from Generals Odierno, Muth, et al: “I think there’s a way to get at this even with sequester caps,” the NGAUS president said.
“If you’ve got qualified people you can grow readiness” by ramping up training, he told me, “but you can’t grow people in times of a catastrophic event at home or abroad.”
The problem with that approach, Army leaders say, is that modern equipment also take a long time to grow: years or decades of development, then years more to buy in quantity and field it to a significant fraction of the force.
“ARI allows us to modernize,” said Col. Walter Rugen, the chief of aviation force development on the Army staff. Without the Aviation Restructure Initiative, he said, even the long-term effort to replace current helicopters with a new Future Vertical Lift (FVL) aircraft might be in jeopardy. “We have to stick on this modernization path,” he said. “We have to stay focused on keeping the most modern platforms and equipment.”
That’s the fundamental debate: Should scarce dollars go to more modern equipment or for more troops?
“At the end,” said Hargett, “it’s all about money.”