“To be honest, we feel betrayed.”
That’s what one National Guard gunship pilot told me when I asked him about the Army’s plan to strip the Guard of all its AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. That plan — still awaiting approval by President Obama before he includes it in his budget request for fiscal year 2015 — is just one part of a radical overhaul that includes complex downsizing and reshuffling of the Army’s entire helicopter force.
All told, the Army is losing 898 helicopters, 215 of them (24 percent) from the Guard. Driven by the cold realities of budget cuts, the plan has stirred fiery emotions that push the Army leadership and the National Guard community closer to all-out political war.
“Here’s the issue: The Army has to pay a $79 billon bill over the next five years,” Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ray Odierno said this morning. “I can’t afford all the fleets of aircraft I have right now. We can’t afford them.…It is impossible under the budget that we’ve been given.”
Speaking at an Association of the US Army breakfast, the visibly agitated Odierno was taking his second “Guard vs. Army” question in a row — “The National Guard is the Army,” he’d hotly told the first reporter to ask — and the normally good-natured general cut me off mid-question to give the impassioned response above.
“This is about affordability,” Odierno went on. “That’s the issue. People want to make it into something that it isn’t,” he went on. “This is about not having the money to sustain the fleets we have now, so we have to make some tough decisions…. That doesn’t mean we think it’s the right way necessarily but it’s the best way forward” — the best way, in other words, that the Army can afford.
The Army wants to move the Guard’s Apaches to active-duty scout squadrons to replace the helicopters those units are losing, the OH-58 Kiowas. Lighter, nimbler, and cheaper to operate than the Apache, the beloved Kiowa is also much more vulnerable because of its lighter armament and armor. It entered first service in 1968, almost half a century ago and Army officials have decided they cannot afford either to keep upgrading the Kiowa or to develop a replacement, so they want to retire it completely over the next five years. (The Army move is similar to one that the Air Force is considering, retiring the entire A-10 Warthog fleet to save an estimated $3.7 billion. That move has attracted furious opposition as well for different reasons.)
“It was going to be putting new shoes on an old horse for $10 billion,” said Army Lt. Gen. Kevin Mangum of the Kiowa upgrade plan. “By the way, we don’t have that ten billion dollars.” As for replacing the Kiowa with a new Armed Aerial Scout — just one of the high-priority Army programs now put on indefinite hold — “that would be a $16 billion bill.”
So the Army decided on a radical measure: replace Kiowas altogether with a mix of the most advanced Apache model, the AH-6E Guardian, coordinating via wireless networks with Grey Eagle drones. In fact, a 2010 Army study said this “manned-unmanned teaming” was the best way to do reconnaissance without building an all-new scout helicopter: Apache plus drones meets 80 percent of the requirements, Mangum said, while an upgraded Kiowa meets only 50 percent and the current Kiowa less than 20 percent.
“If we left it up purely to the budgeteers, it would really be ugly,” said Mangum, speaking to AUSA’s annual aviation symposium last week. Under the default plan, he said, “we were going to keep old aircraft and give up new.” Instead of being passive “victims” of cuts that took a proportional “salami slice” out of every program, he said, the Army “seized the opportunity” to reshape the force by retiring its oldest aircraft en masse.
“If we sat and waited and took the salami slice, we would break everything,” said Maj. Gen. Lynn Collyar, chief of the Army’s Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM), speaking at the same conference. Instead, he told me one-on-one afterwards, the Army has seized its destiny in its own hands “instead of being dragged to the future.”
For many in the National Guard community, however, the Apache plan is the latest in a string of insults that have the two components of the Army in what look like the early skirmishes of a nasty civil war.
“Our Apache pilots, they’ll have no jobs. They’ll have to either retrain or get out, and an awful lot of them will just get out,” John Goheen, chief spokesman for the powerful National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) told me last week.
He spoke as budget negotiations inside the Pentagon reached the boiling point and NGAUS broke with months of self-restraint and publicly berated Gen. Odierno for “disparaging” the Guard.
But Goheen told me that it’s not just the Guard’s budget, size, and honor that are at stake. The Guard and Reserves historically serve as a cheap way to keep some of the nation’s most experienced veterans on retainer, a catchpool for experienced soldiers who want to leave the grueling life of active duty but still continue to serve. Now, Goheen said, “when Apache pilots and maintainers leave the active component, where can they go to serve?”
“Most of us went to flight school with a specific goal, that being to fly the Apache,” the Guard pilot said of his unit. “The effect on morale is very significant [because] people work very hard toward and make many sacrifices in their personal and professional lives so that they can be a part of this elite force.”
“[That's] not to say that we wouldn’t be willing to fly another airframe,” the pilot went on. In contrast to Goheen, the pilot said his most experienced colleagues — the ones with the fewest years left before they qualify for retirement benefits — would stay in the Guard and just retrain for other jobs.
Under the Army plan, the Guard would get additional UH-60 Black Hawks to make up for some — not all — of the helicopters it has to retire or give away, for a net loss of 215 aircraft. But the Black Hawk is a “utility” helicopter, essentially a transport. While it sometimes carries troops straight into battle and covers their landing with machinegun fire, it’s not a gunship. With the Guard losing both its Apaches and its Kiowas, it will have nothing but transport helicopters. For pilots used to shooting stuff, the job just ain’t the same.
“Most of us have deployed once, twice, or even three times in the previous 12-14 years, and served alongside active-duty [soldiers] throughout these deployments,” the Guard pilot said. “To be honest, we feel betrayed by what we thought were our brethren. What in the hell happened to ‘One Team One Fight?’”
“We were all blindsided by the active-duty proposal,” he said, “and we’re trying to understand why the active duty [leadership] is willing to go to this extreme.”
Army leaders make clear they really don’t want to do this. “As much as possible, we want the Guard and the US Army Reserve to look the same as the active component,” Odierno said this morning. “Will there be exceptions? Yes.” The Guard having no Apaches is one of them.
But why? “Our Guard Apaches, they’ve done wonderful work,” Lt. Gen. Mangum said at last week’s conference, “[but] the challenge really becomes their level of readiness and accessibility…..When we need Apaches now, we need Apaches now, and the train up time required, the mobilization time required for the [Guard] Apaches, is really the the issue.”
“Readiness and accessibility” is the Army leadership’s mantra whenever they’re asked why something needs to be in the active-duty force rather than the reserves and Guard. Readiness depends on how much time and money Guard troops get to train. Accessibility refers to how often, how quickly, and how long they can be called up for active duty. Plug these factors into Army computer models and you’ll get the justification for the current mix of forces. But garbage in means garbage out, and the Army leadership’s analysis starts with some debatable assumptions.
“We modeled this force against a 12-year scenario,” said Lt. Gen. Mangum. “The issue comes down to how often we can turn our reserve component formations — because we’re not just talking about a year or two year or three year [or even a] four year cycle.”
In plain English, what Mangum means is that the Army isn’t just looking at how many Guard units it can mobilize to respond to a particular crisis. Instead, it’s looking at how to sustain a steady level of forces on active duty for more than a decade. That requires putting each unit through a cycle: mobilize, deploy, come home, return to civilian life for a while — then mobilize and deploy again.
“Over a 12-year period for these citizen-soldiers, expecting them to do deployment after deployment after deployment” is just too much, Mangum told reporters after his public remarks.
That’s the grueling grind required of the Guard over the last 12 years for Afghanistan and Iraq. But it may be irrelevant to the needs of the next war. If the fighting lasts “only” a year or two — and there’s little appetite in the nation for another long conflict — then what matters isn’t how many times you can deploy each Guard unit over 12 years, it’s how many units you can deploy once.
The assumptions about timelines — short war or long, sudden crisis or slow build-up — also underlie what kind of readiness you think you need. If everything’s over in two months, Guard combat brigades just can’t get there on time, because they need a minimum of 50 days to mobilize and train up, so your entire ground combat force has to be active-duty. (Air Guard units and specialized Army Guard units can spin up much faster). Conversely, if the war lasts 12 years, you can keep Guard units at a low level of readiness because you’ll have plenty of time to train them up for their turn in the deployment cycle. For anything in between, however, you can benefit from more readiness in the Guard.
How much readiness? With the current budget cuts imposed by sequestration over fiscal years 2016 to 2019, “there’s about a 25 percent reduction in training across the Army,” Mangum said. That brings active-duty helicopter units down to 10.7 flight hours per crew per month, he said, barely enough to maintain “company-level collective proficiency” in complex maneuvers involving half a dozen helicopters or more at once. “In our reserve component force,” he said, “it’s about six hours per crew per month, which equates to right at crew-level proficiency” — that is, the ability to fly one aircraft by itself.
In fact, Maj. Gen. Collyar told me, a helicopter that doesn’t fly enough can develop expensive problems, just like a car that sits too long in the garage. “There’s a lot of these things that if you don’t fly ‘em, they cost you more than if you fly ‘em routinely,” he said. In Guard units, “they don’t fly ‘em enough to keep the maintenance cost down….There are a lot lower hours but the cost per flight hour is a lot more.”
But six flight hours a month for Guard crews versus 10.7 for active duty aren’t numbers that came down from Heaven at Mount Sinai, carved in tablets of stone: Couldn’t the Army just choose to fund more flight hours for the Guard?
“We can give ‘em more hours, but are there people available to employ those hours?” Mangum replied. The issue isn’t just funding but the Guard’s capacity to absorb it. There are only so many hours a month you can ask part-time troops to fly, just as there are only so many times you can call them up over a 12-year period.
But those limits, again, are not set in stone. “That’s not Army aviation policy, that comes out of OSD policy,” Mangum told me, referring to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “If those policies change, that’s a different game.”
In fact, many Guard troops already spend more time working for their units — sometimes without pay — than the 39 days a year that is formally required. That’s especially true for soldiers with complex and perishable skills like flying helicopters.
“Most aviators and mechanics train over 100 days a year, in some cases, up to 135 days a year,” the Guard Apache pilot told me. “And for most Guard aviators, this is in addition to their full-time civilian jobs.” What’s more, because so many of these pilots spent years on active duty before joining the Guard, they are older, more mature, and more experienced than many pilots in active-duty units.
In fact, Guard advocates cite figures (which we can’t confirm) that active-duty units have crashed 12 Apaches due to “pilot error” over the last five years, while Guard units have lost none. Some of this is simply because the active-duty force flies more, but some of it they attribute to less good pilots. That, of course, is an argument that riles active-duty troops as much as the “well, you only train 39 days a year” arguments infuriate the Guard.
So there’s a hot debate over the cold facts, and both sides have much at stake, from self-esteem to budget share. While budget pressures forced the Army to make hard choices, they were still choices, not inevitabilities. And even if those specific choices are approved by Sec. Chuck Hagel and the White House, the president’s budget request still has to run the gantlet of Capitol Hill.
That’s why the Army leadership keeps hammering home the message that everyone is hurting — active, reserve, and Guard — and that they’re asking the Guard to suffer a relatively small share of the collective pain. The Guard is losing 215 helicopters to the active component’s 683. The Guard and Reserve are losing 15 percent of their combat aviation brigades, the active component 23 percent.
“We can’t afford our current fleet so we have to make adjustments — and the majority of the adjustments are going to happen in our active-component aviation units,” Odierno said this morning.
Nor, the Chief of Staff insisted, does he have anything but respect for the Guard, despite NGAUS saying his public remarks have been “disparag[ing], disrespectful and simply not true.” Full-time regular soldiers and part-time citizen soldiers have fought side by side since the Revolutionary War, when Washington’s Continental Army reinforced but also depended on the militia. (Of course, there have been tensions between the two at least that long as well). The active-duty Army and the Army National Guard need each other, and the nation needs then both, Odierno said: “Each is different, each does different things, but they are both critical.”