Thursday, January 28, 2016

Commission proposes compromise in Apache helicopter dispute - Charles D'Alberto

A new proposal that recommends keeping some Apache helicopter battalions in the U.S. Army National Guard could end a long-running dispute between the Guard and the active-duty Army. Skip Robinson Photo

The United States Army National Guard should retain four Apache helicopter battalions, the National Commission on the Future of the Army (NCFA) has recommended.

In a report released on Jan. 28, the NCFA outlined a compromise between a U.S. Army restructuring plan — which would eliminate all Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters from the National Guard — and a more expensive National Guard proposal, which would retain six Apache helicopter battalions in the Guard.

Under the NCFA’s proposed alternative, the active-duty Army would maintain 20 Apache helicopter battalions equipped with 24 aircraft each, while the Guard would keep four battalions, each with 18 aircraft. The Army would commit to using National Guard battalions regularly, mobilizing and deploying them in peacetime.

The NCFA said this option would offer more wartime capacity than either the Army’s or the National Guard’s approach, while also contributing to “a key commission goal of achieving one Army that works and trains together in peacetime and, if necessary, fights together in war.”

The NCFA was established by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 to assess the size and force structure of the Army’s active and reserve components.

It was specifically tasked with examining the transfer of Army National Guard AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from the National Guard to the regular Army, after the Army’s proposed Aviation Restructure Initiative prompted bitter protests from states and Guard units.

Among other things, the initiative calls for retiring the Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior from the Army, and using a combination of Apaches and unmanned aircraft for the Kiowa’s reconnaissance and scouting role. (The Army originally sought to replace the Kiowa through the Armed Aerial Scout program, but budget pressures forced it to place that program on indefinite hold.)

In exchange for Apaches, the Aviation Restructure Initiative would provide the Guard with Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. When fully implemented, the initiative would result in a net reduction of 798 rotary-wing aircraft across the Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve.

Army National Guard leaders have argued that eliminating Apaches would leave the Guard without full-spectrum combat capability. Guard units are also a way of retaining expertise when experienced Apache crews and maintainers leave active duty. Skip Robinson Photo

The NCFA described the Aviation Restructure Initiative as “a well-crafted plan that holds down costs while maintaining a reasonable level of wartime capacity.” However, the commission noted that it provides no wartime surge capacity for Apache aircraft, and leaves no reserve component backup in case of peacetime problems.

Moreover, the commission said, it would “further reduce the ‘connective tissue’ that binds the regular Army and Army National Guard together,” as Apaches would become an area where Army and National Guard units could no longer “work closely together as one Army.”

In response to the Aviation Restructure Initiative, the Guard proposed its own plan, which would keep six Apache helicopter battalions in the Guard, two of those in multicomponent aviation brigades that would have one Apache battalion from the regular Army and one from the Guard.

The Guard’s plan would provide significant wartime surge capacity, but it would also be expensive, as a recent Government Accountability Office report pointed out. And the NCFA noted that the Guard’s alternative provides less wartime capacity than the Aviation Restructure Initiative, with greater shortfalls early in conflict.

The NCFA’s recommended third alternative would also add to costs, with operating costs increasing by a net of about $165 million a year, in addition to one-time costs of about $420 million to remanufacture 24 Apache helicopters from D to E models.

However, the commission said that “these added operating and procurement costs are small compared to the total defense budget.” And it suggested several ways in which those costs might be offset, such as through a modest slowdown in the procurement program for Black Hawk helicopters.