The US Army will request money to buy 100 new UH-72 Lakota Light Utility Helicopters in the fiscal 2015 budget, Army and civilian officials say. While the cost of the new Lakota buy is still uncertain, a baseline cost for the helo is $5.5 million per unit, without extra mission systems added on. (Tech. Sgt. John Orrell / US Army)
WASHINGTON — The US Army will request money to buy 100 new UH-72 Lakota light utility helicopters beginning in the fiscal 2015 budget, Army and civilian officials say. The helicopters will eventually replace the training aircraft used at Fort Rucker, Ala., which the service plans on deactivating as part of a larger restructuring of its rotary aviation fleet.
The proposed new helicopters are part of a controversial plan that came to light in December. The proposal calls for the Army National Guard to hand its fleet of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters over to the active-duty Army while receiving Black Hawk helicopters in return. The Army also wants to divest its entire fleet of OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopters, using the Guard Apaches to fulfill that mission.
The new Lakotas would replace the TH-67 training helicopters that the service will also do away with.
One source familiar with the plan said the 2015 funding would cover 55 helicopters, while the Army would ask for more money in fiscal 2016 to complete the buy.
The proposed removal of the Apaches from the Guard has drawn condemnation from the politically powerful National Guard Association and some members of Congress — and it promises to be front and center once Army leaders testify on Capitol Hill after the defense budget rollout on March 4.
“We’re probably better connected to the Hill than the active-duty guys,” said National Guard Association President retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett. “But what we want to do is find a smarter way to pay the bills. And we think we can do that without sacrificing our ability to respond and to protect the homeland as well as deploy overseas.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel threw his support behind the Army plan during a Monday Pentagon briefing, saying that he was “mindful that many in the Guard and reserve community and in Congress have argued that the reserve component should be protected from cuts because they provide more troops at lower cost.” But going forward, the Pentagon “must prioritize readiness, capability and agility” over numbers.
And that is exactly what the Army claims it is doing in its aviation restructure plan. One senior Army official who spoke on background said that in order for the active Army to retain its combat punch amid an era of flat budgets, the service has to cut the number of different airframes it operates.
Getting rid of two models of the Kiowa and the TH-67 would eliminate three aircraft models of the Army’s seven, while continuing to modernize the Chinook, Apache and Black Hawk until replacement helicopters begin to enter the fleet in the late 2020s and 2030s.
“What do the states need?” the Army official asked. “They need this light utility helicopter to do the missions they have and they need lift; they need Black Hawks.”
Single-use combat helicopters such as the Apache “have very little to no utility to a governor,” the official continued.
While the cost of the new Lakota buy is still uncertain, a baseline cost for the helo is $5.5 million per unit, without extra mission systems added on.
Lakota maker Airbus Group, Inc., formerly EADS North America, has delivered 296 helicopters to the US Army, not including the 20 more that Congress added into its January omnibus spending bill.
The Army National Guard fields eight battalions spread across nine states outfitted with Apaches, but the Army insists that the multi-use OH-60L Black Hawks will be more useful in natural disaster and homeland security missions than single use-Apache attack helicopters.
“The states gain 111 more Black Hawks than they have today,” the official continued.
When the service began tackling the problem of what to do with its helicopter fleets in the face of sequestration and flattening budgets, the original plan was to eliminate five aviation brigades: three in the active force and two in the reserve.
“Apaches, Chinooks, Black Hawks — our best equipment that we have built up over these last 13 years — were going to be divested entirely out of the Army,” the official said.
But by eliminating the Kiowa and replacing it in the active force with the Apache, the service says it will save over $1 billion a year in operating costs, while not giving up any of the firepower that ground units have relied on so heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan. ■