The fiscal 2015 budget calls for decreasing the size of the Army National Guard and Reserve while shifting AH-64 Apache helicopters to the active force. The National Guard is promising a fight. (US Army)
WASHINGTON — In the week between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s unveiling of the broad outlines of the Pentagon’s 2015 budget request and the full rollout of the numbers on March 4, the Army’s chief of staff was largely out of the country.
Gen. Ray Odierno spent the last week of February working on his service’s own “rebalance” to Asia, paying visits to his peers in Beijing and Tokyo and visiting soldiers in South Korea.
It was far away from the growing discontent surrounding the Army’s plans to cut the National Guard and Reserve by tens of thousands of part-time soldiers while taking away the eight Guard AH-64 Apache attack helicopter battalions and using them for “Big Army’s” scout mission.
It might be a good thing that the chief got out of town to visit allies, as it’s a safe bet that he will spend the majority of the spring fighting it out over the Guard plan, especially during his March 25 and April 3 appearances before the House and Senate Armed Services committees, respectively.
“We’re probably better connected to the Hill than the active-duty guys,” the politically powerful president of the National Guard Association, retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, told Defense News. “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.”
If the plans briefed by Hagel on Feb. 24 make it through Congress intact, the Army Guard would lose 20,000 soldiers, falling to 335,000, while the Reserve will lose about 10,000 soldiers to hit 195,000 by 2017. If sequestration returns in 2016, the Army Guard would continue drawing down further to 315,000, and the Reserve would shrink to 185,000.
The active-duty ground force will comprise about 450,000 soldiers in a best-case scenario, but fall to 420,000 if sequestration remains after 2016.
Hargett’s group wants to reverse the “tooth to tail” ratio in the active Army, forcing a move of some combat power to the Guard. This would be somewhat in keeping with the Obama administration’s stated policy of not structuring the military for long-term stability operations in the coming years.
“I think the active Army should give up some combat power and go buy back some of the enablers, some of the transportation, ordnance, and other companies that allow them to go fight shorter contingencies without mobilizing the Guard and Reserve, and leave some of those later deploying troops to the Guard,” he said.
“In peacetime, when you don’t fight a war, you would have a smaller Army and a larger Guard, and you would surge and be able to build a larger Army to fight your war.”
But active-duty leaders take the opposite view.
The service is restructuring its brigades and its acquisition strategy to be able to deploy faster, and punch harder, than it has in the past. Odierno has stressed that he sees the Army becoming more “expeditionary” in the coming years, which would call for the Apaches teamed with Shadow UAVs to perform the armed aerial scout mission.
One senior Army official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, explained recently that in keeping with this new emphasis on speed, “readiness and accessibility is really much more important” than keeping a large number of troops in the active and Guard forces.
The Army also is explicitly rejecting calls for a congressionally mandated independent commission similar to the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, whose report was delivered in January to study the right mix for reserve and active forces.
The Air Force commission called for a move of more assets into the part-time force to save billions of dollars annually.
“The commission makes it worse for everybody,” the senior Army official insisted, saying the year or two it would take a commission to finish its work would throw the force out of whack. “The problem if we do that is that the money is already gone. The budget is what it is. If we freeze the National Guard, then the US Army Reserve and the active [force] have to take the brunt of everything.”
Commission Tug of War
Even under sequestration, the Army will take a larger hit to its end strength. Army officials have said that is the right thing to do, since the active-duty force grew to 570,000 during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They told us what our budget is, and we’ve got to move out and try to make responsible decisions here,” the official said.
Capitol Hill may feel differently about that, however.
One former Hill staffer said, “I would be shocked if they don’t wind up with some kind of Guard commission. It’s a very hard thing to argue against. And while you’ll have some modest defense offered by people who say it’s a waste of money, I believe they will get a commission.
“If you accept the proposition, then the sensible thing to do would be for an Army leader to go to the [defense] secretary and say, ‘Create one right now and let’s pre-empt this.’ ”
In the world of National Guard and local politics — and jobs — that has to remain front and center for senators and representatives. “It’s very hard to argue against a study of something. It’s easy to say, ‘Hey, let’s just make sure that this is the right thing to do and not be rash,’ ” the former Hill staffer said.
As part of its overall aviation restructuring, the Army will request money to buy 100 UH-72 Lakota light utility helicopters starting in fiscal 2015. The helicopters will eventually replace the training aircraft used at Fort Rucker, Ala., which the service plans on deactivating.
The proposed new helicopters are part of a plan calling for the Guard to hand its fleet of Apache attack helicopters over to the active Army while receiving UH-60 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 the mission.
The new Lakotas would replace TH-67 training helicopters.
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.
Hagel threw his support behind the Army plan during a Feb. 24 Pentagon briefing, saying the Pentagon “must prioritize readiness, capability and agility” over numbers.
While the Guard — and state governors and members of Congress — are loath to give up soldiers and Apaches, the Army insists that getting rid of the Kiowa and TH-67 would save $1 billion in operating costs per year.
Still, a bipartisan group of 13 senators wrote to Hagel on Feb. 24, calling the Guard plan “shortsighted,” and warning that it “creates unnecessary risk to our national security at the expense of incredibly capable attack aviation assets in the Army National Guard.”
“What do the states need?” the Army official countered. “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.
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, two in the Reserve.
“Apaches, [CH-47] 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. ■