The U.S. Army National Guard will have to give up around 400 helicopters, including all of its attack and scout copters, if Congress approves a new and controversial Army reorganization plan.
Guard leaders oppose the move. “This will have a tremendously negative impact,” said Maj. Gen. Max Haston, adjutant general of the Tennessee National Guard.
But if the plan goes forward, the Guard will actually end up with a more useful aviation force than it has now, according to Army leaders.
Today the Guard possesses some 1,500 helicopters spread fairly evenly across the 50 states and U.S. territories. The restructuring plan would remove all of the Guard’s 200 AH-64 Apache attack copters plus its 100 or so OH-58 Kiowa scouts and 100 UH-72 Lakota utility birds.
The Vietnam War-era Kiowas would be scrapped. The Apaches would go to the Active Army to replace that component’s retired Kiowas. The Lakotas would also transfer to the Active Component, where they would replace old TH-67 copters in the training role.
As consolation prize, the Guard would gain 100 UH-60 Blackhawk transports from the Active Army, resulting in a “new” Guard fleet of around 1,200 rotorcraft—just under a third of all Army aircraft.
Army brass conceived of the plan as a way to solve several problems—foremost, the billions of dollars in budget cuts mandated by the sequestration law, according to Col. John Lindsay, Army aviation chief at the Pentagon.
“Once you accept the fact that you’re going to live in resource-constrained environment a longer time and accept the fact that you’re going to have a smaller Army and aviation force—when you do that, you realize you actually have the opportunity within sequestration to take assets and redistribute them,” Lindsay tells War is Boring.
The other problems include the vastly different—and inefficient—structures of the Army’s various aviation brigades plus the ground combat branch’s inability, after several tries, to acquire a new, affordable scout copter to replace the OH-58.
The brass decided it would begin to standardize aviation brigades by entirely eliminating all single-engine helicopters—including the Kiowas—and replacing them with a smaller number of more capable twin-engine rotorcraft.
Apaches, transferred from the Guard, would replace the Active Army’s Kiowas alongside an expanding drone fleet—finally bringing to a close a painful, 30-year effort to produce a new aviation scout force. Active and Guard Lakotas would become trainers.
A hundred UH-60s would cascade from the Active Army down to the Guard. In Lindsay’s assessment, gaining 100 large, versatile Blackhawk transports in exchange for 300 scout and attack birds and 100 small utility copters means a net gain for the Army Guard, which is controlled by state governors during peacetime and splits its time between fighting wars and helping out after natural disasters.
“We will be able to offset the loss by giving the Reserve Component what we think are aircraft more suited for the homeland mission and capabilities that our governors will appreciate,” Lindsay says, “especially given that we have a requirement that seems to grow every year for dealing with wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes.”
The rationale being that a Blackhawk, seating up to 15 passengers and crew, is more useful to the state-based Guard than a 10-seat UH-72 and is far more practical than an armed attack copter that can only carry the crew plus weapons and has basically no domestic, peacetime mission.
Moreover, placing all the AH-64s in the Active Army ensures that the Pentagon can get the most possible front-line flight time from its premier close-air-support helicopter.
Guard units usually deploy overseas only one year out of five; the Active Army deploys one year out of three. As a result, today the military can expect to have 180 AH-64s in combat at any given time. After the reorganization, it could routinely deploy as many as 220 Apaches to war zones.
But the arguments in favor of a copter shuffle have not swayed Guard leaders, who almost always oppose any change in equipment and manning. “This is not universally popular—let’s put it that way,” Lindsay says.
Congress will need to approve, and pay for, the proposed reorganization.