Congress and Pentagon are engaged in a new fight: Where do Apache helicopters belong?


An AH-64D Apache Longbow with the South Carolina Army National Guard releasing flares during a test over Camp Tajo, Iraq. (Tracci Dorgan/AP)
Walter Pincus
Reporter April 7

The Pentagon has a new fight with Congress.

This one is over the Pentagon’s plan to cut costs by moving the AH-64 Apache attack helicopters assigned to Army National Guard units to the active Army and replacing them with newer UH-60 Black Hawks, which are used mainly for transportation.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

Where the Apaches end up “remains a contentious issue,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, as he opened a hearing March 27 on the Army’s portion of the 2015 defense appropriations bill.

“We know this is controversial, but we believe we have no choice,” said Army Secretary John McHugh, who understands the problem for legislators. He is a former Republican congressman from New York who was once the ranking minority lawmaker on the House Armed Services Committee.

Why so much controversy?

The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, was diplomatic at the hearing: “We are not eliminating aviation brigades in the Guard. What we are doing is transferring the attack capability out of the Guard.”

Put more directly, Army Guard helicopter pilots, who are also constituents back home, have trained with Apaches to be in the thick of fighting but will now see themselves as preparing to play a less-glamorous logistics role.

“It’s a macho thing,” explained a former senior cavalry officer.

The Pentagon’s rationale is simple. The Army is going to retire about 600 OH-58 Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters and the training helicopters that go with them as part of an overall reduction of Army aviation. Odierno pointed out that the proposal is designed to save “almost $12 billion because it would cost us about $10 billion to modernize the OH-58 for it to perform the mission.”

The previous replacement for the OH-58 armed reconnaissance mission, the Boeing-Sikorsky Comanche, was canceled in 2004 after $6.9 billion was spent over 22 years for development.

Since the Army does not have the money to buy enough new Apaches for the scout mission, it is transferring the Guard’s 192 Apaches to the active Army to help handle the job. Slightly more than 100 modern Black Hawks will be transferred from active Army components to the Guard.

McHugh said that the Black Hawks “are far more ideal for their . . . state role,” where they can handle domestic disasters and other needs of governors.

Odierno emphasized that the Army needs Apaches with the active forces to respond quickly to threats, while he looks to the Guard to provide support.

“In Afghanistan and Iraq, the combat aircraft that flew the most hours is the UH-60 [the Black Hawk], by far. It is . . . the centerpiece of everything we do, and I need that capability in the Guard,” he said.

Odierno also said the lack of time for future training needed to master the complexity of air-ground integration for Guard pilots influenced the decision. “If I had my choice and I had the dollars, I certainly would have kept it in the Guard, but we simply don’t have that choice,” he said.

The issue isn’t settled.

“The Army’s plan for the Guard is ill-conceived,” said the National Guard Association of the United States.

Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a retired colonel in the Arkansas Army National Guard, said his concern was that “taking the attack action piece completely out of the National Guard. . . creates a bit of a contentious debate between” the active and Guard components.

The military is not right about everything, and on occasion it even admits mistakes.

Remember the Marine Corps Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), the amphibious assault vehicle that was going to be launched from ships over the horizon from shore, travel fast in the water and move on land as fast as an M1 tank? Plans called for it to be deployed next year, but it was canceled four years ago by then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates when its proposed costs rose to $15 billion, with $3 billion of that already spent.

The Marine commandant, Gen. James Amos, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing March 27, said that when the service took a second look at its requirements, it found that maneuverability on land was more important than high speed in the water. The service also decided that to carry Marines from transports to near shore, it could use connectors “that we’re buying right now, like the joint high-speed vessel, which will go 30, 40, 50 knots in the right sea state.”

The result, Amos said, is that “we can now buy a vehicle that is basically one-third the cost [of an EFV], that is easily much more maneuverable and safe ashore. And that’s the direction we’re going.”

That’s progress.

On the helicopter issue, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has introduced a bill that would block the transfer of the National Guard Apaches and proposes a commission to study the structure of the Army.

The Army’s plan, Wilson said in a statement, “significantly reduces personnel, many of whom are aviation personnel with years of experience as either pilots or in aircraft maintenance. Over 6,000 of these personnel, [in] whom the Army has invested significant time and money, will be forced out of a job and will be cut from the Army National Guard as a result of this proposal.”

Wilson’s bill has drawn bipartisan support with 152 co-sponsors, 111 Republicans and 41 Democrats.

It will be interesting to see who wins this battle.

To read previous Fine Print columns, visit washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

Comments
Show Comments

Get the WorldViews newsletter

Sign up for daily updates from WorldViews.

Most Read World