The NCFA and the Apache Helicopter Olive Branch
The report released last month by the National Commission on the Future of the Army (NCFA) concludes the study directed by Congress to examine two main issues — the structure of the Army and the Aviation Restructure Initiative (ARI). The unclassified 198-page report delivers 63 recommendations that do not shy away from addressing difficult topics and identifying areas requiring reform. The report also examines risk to the nation and the Army at many levels and sets the stage for further dialogue on issues of interest to those of us in uniform and to the nation as a whole. The commission, however, missed a chance to vigorously address Army modernization, which has served as the bill payer for maintaining readiness over the past few years. Although not in its stated charter, the NCFA particularly had the opportunity to champion Army aviation’s ability to fight and win the nation’s wars using best the equipment possible and answer a critical question: Do we have the right helicopters to the do the job?
While the NCFA’s mandate was two-pronged — to study both the structure of the Army and the potential transfer of aircraft between the National Guard and the Regular Army — It is no secret to those familiar with the commission and the 2015 NDAA that created it that a major impetus behind this required report was the Army’s Aviation Restructuring Initiative. ARI was an ugly baby necessitated by the 2011 Budget Control Act that required severe funding cuts to the Defense Department and subsequently demanded that the Army choose where to take risks in force structure, modernization, and readiness. The ARI proposed to transfer all National Guard AH-64 Apache helicopters to the active force. The Army’s rationale for this move was to cut costs while preserving a ready and effective aviation force. In effect, the Army sustained readiness at the expense of other areas, especially modernization. No issue in the past quarter century caused such angst between the Army’s three components.
The need for reform is not new to Army aviation. The branch went through a similar ARI process in the mid-1990s as we emerged from our Cold War force structure following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the success of Operation Desert Storm. Over a five-year period, the Army divested itself of the heralded and long-serving UH-1 Huey and OH-58A/C Kiowa Scout helicopters. During this plan, it adapted the design of its battalions and brigades to best support the Army’s divisions. This process sought to modernize and standardize Army aviation across the board. There were significant changes in all three components (Active, Reserve, and National Guard) in their makeup, with little pushback since there were adjustments across the board.
After more than 10 years of combat that placed high demands on Army aviation, the story was much different. Facing significant budget reductions, the Army asked its most expensive branch to look for significant savings in 2014. This version of ARI was drastic and unpopular, but it was forecast to potentially save the Army over a billion dollars. The cost of the plan would be paid in reduced force structure: the retirement of hundreds of helicopters, including the aging OH-58D Kiowa Warrior — a favorite of infantry soldiers — and the eventual closure of five combat aviation brigades, including three from the active force. To facilitate this dramatic proposal, the active Army would accept all of the National Guard’s Apaches to fill the holes in its reconnaissance squadrons left by the soon-to-be retired OH-58Ds. In return, the active force would transfer more than 100 UH-60 Blackhawk utility helicopters to the National Guard, which would improve disaster assistance capacity for state governors while standing ready to deploy to combat.
These tradeoffs — while necessary in the Army leadership’s eyes for the good of the service — caused an immediate firestorm across the National Guard, the governors of states who had Apache units, and members of Congress who represented those states. Many claimed that ARI violated all sorts of joint and service publications from the Abrams Doctrine to the CJCS 2020 Vision since it ripped combat power and structure away from the National Guard and removed jobs from states that needed them. The National Guard even produced a counter-proposal to ARI in an effort to keep six of its Apache battalions.
The NCFA’s report addresses Army aviation in 11 of its 63 recommendations, clearly more than any other branch or service issue. But did it resolve the key issue regarding the future of the Apache fleet? It settled for a compromise, seeking to appease the National Guard while slowing the ARI process and sticking the Army with a large bill to eventually purchase more remanufactured Apache helicopters.
The commissioners do not hide the fact that their middle-ground proposal will be costly; if fully implemented, their recommendations would cost at least two billion dollars. Their recommendation (#57) suggests completing a transfer of the National Guard Apaches to the active component that would result in 20 regular Army 24-ship AH-64 battalions (10 Attack and 10 Armed Reconnaissance) while placating the National Guard with four Apache Battalions of 18 AH-64s each. This solution satisfies the desire for a Total Force construct with the National Guard having AH-64 battalions able to train with its brigade combat teams while also providing strategic depth for the Army. These deployable attack helicopter battalions can help offset the constant combat rotations of active component AH-64 units. The tradeoff, besides the unprogrammed cost of remanufacturing 24 Apaches from D to E models for the National Guard, would be fewer UH-60s transferred from the active force. There was no immediate reaction to this particular proposal at the unveiling of the NCFA’s publication.
In addition, the commission missed an opportunity to address an ongoing risk to both mission and force: the fact that Army aviation will soon be missing a crucial element of its fighting fleet — a dedicated armed reconnaissance helicopter. These nimble and responsive aircraft are an integral part of the Army’s core mission of combined arms maneuver. The “aerial scouts” — flown by warriors who hung it out there, often using their own M4 rifles to mark and engage targets — were traditionally the eyes and ears of the ground force commander. Their pilots were known for flying with their doors off and landing anywhere to dismount and converse with soldiers on the ground to provide needed first-hand intelligence and receive the ground force commander’s intent face-to-face. Since the Army has been unable to secure the funding and satisfy design requirements for a new scout helicopter, it is filling this critical mission with a suboptimal solution — AH-64 Apaches teamed with MQ-1C Grey Eagle unmanned aerial systems.
This is neither the most efficient nor effective solution, but a necessity based on the current budgetary and modernization constraints. Moreover, although a remarkably deadly and combat-proven beast of an attack helicopter, the Apache is not well-suited to the traditional air cavalry role filled in the past by the OH-58A/C, the OH-6, and the OH-58D. These aircraft were cheap, simple to maintain, and easy to move and hide — all of which the recently upgraded AH-64E is not.
The Army has not had a successful new helicopter program in decades. It has pursued blocks of upgrades to the current fleet with improved avionics, sensors, engines, and blades, but no new helicopter design has made it past the prototype stage. Army aviation tried and failed twice over the past 20 years to replace its aging scout helicopter, first with the RAH-66 Comanche and then with the ARH-70 Arapaho Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. Both of these helicopter programs were cancelled, and the Army is now left to support its ground forces in this role with the AH-64, which may not be the best scout helicopter, though it certainly is the best attack helicopter in the world. The risk in the aerial armed reconnaissance mission area can be reduced with proper training and integration between the air and ground. The need remains, however, for the Army to secure the funding for new, truly modernized aviation platforms such as Future Vertical Lift aircraft to meet the challenges and threats in the operational environment now and in the years to come.
Time and budgets will tell if the report’s suggestions will help ease the tension across an Army that wants to be viewed as a Total Force rather than three separate and squabbling components trying to protect their own rice bowls. The next move in this chess match over the Apache is up to Congress, and this story is far from over. For now, leaders are doing their best to mitigate risk while aircraft transfers and unit shutdowns continue across Army aviation. The aviation branch remains as busy as ever while still in great need of long-range modernization of its helicopter fleet that will require significantly increased funding in the future.
Colonel Phil Ryan is a student at the U.S. Army War College. A 1992 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he is a career Army Aviator who has served in Operations ENDURING FREEDOM, IRAQI FREEDOM, and INHERENT RESOLVE. The views in this article are his own and do not represent those of the US Army War College, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo credit: The U.S. Army