Helo Swap: Brig. Gen. Michael Lundy, commanding general of the US Army Aviation Center of Excellence, above, briefs Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the Army's helicopter restructure plans at Fort Rucker, Alabama, on Thursday. A US Army UH-72A Lakota, left, lifts off at Fort Rucker. (Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/US DoD)
FORT RUCKER, ALA. — The US Army’s plan to shift National Guard AH-64 Apaches into the active duty in exchange for UH-60 Black Hawks will allow governors to better respond to state disasters, the general in charge of training the service’s helicopter pilots said.
Lawmakers have opposed the controversial Army plan to swap the aircraft. But the Army says the move is necessary due to defense budget cuts and plans to cut Army end-strength from 510,000 soldiers to between 420,000 and 450,000 soldiers, depending on funding levels.
Within those cuts, Army aviation ranks are slated to fall 10,000 billets, most coming from the active duty, Brig. Gen. Michael Lundy, commanding general of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence, told a small group of reporters on Thursday.
“That pain’s being felt across our entire branch,” Lundy said. “We don’t look at this as an active-National Guard [issue]. I don’t,” Lundy said. “I look at this as a branch issue for Army aviation.”
Since active-duty soldiers could deploy more frequently than the Guard, a combat aircraft, such as the Apache, is better in the active ranks, he said.
“An AH-64 does nothing for a state; it does not do a mission for a state,” Lundy said.
During an April 8 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Gen. Frank Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said an Apache was used only one time for a stateside mission, when NASA was looking for remains of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003.
The primary mission for the Guard’s Apache aircraft is to back up active-duty combat aircraft.
When mobilized, having “combat power” in the Guard is “absolutely critical,” he said. “If we had more brigades, more money and more time, would we do that? Absolutely.”
The move has been emotional among Guardsmen and has prompted online petitions calling for a halt to the shift. Apaches are flown by the National Guard in nine states.
“I can understand the emotion and the passion,” Lundy said. “But emotion and passion mean very little when you look at what’s best for the nation and what we’re capable of doing.”
The House and Senate versions of the 2015 defense authorization bill went along with the plan to transfer Apaches from the Guard to the active force, however lawmakers want an independent commission to review the plan, and would limit the transfers to 48 aircraft until that work is complete.
The Apache-Black Hawk swap has been opposed by some governors and state adjutants general.
Asked how to convince state leaders to buy into the swap, Lundy said: “To me, it’s very clear, it’s very logical, it’s very common sense. And politics are not always logical or common sense.”
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Rucker on Thursday where Lundy briefed him on the restructure plans.
Rucker trains active-duty, Guard and reserve pilots.
The general said the AH-64 is the Army’s most complex aircraft and takes the longest to train a pilot. It is also difficult for pilots to train at home station because it is used for ground attack and close-air support, and is typically teamed with ground units.
“You have to have a training area to be able to do that routinely,” he said. “That’s got to be a daily occurrence.”
They must also train at the platoon, company and battalion level, in ways that they have not been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, Lundy said.
“The Guard’s not resourced to train that way on home station like that,” he said.
The active units could deploy more frequently than Guard units. Two active-duty Apache units could cover a combatant command requirement indefinitely, Lundy said.
“It takes six National Guard battalions to cover what those two [active-duty] battalions can cover,” he said.
The Apache swap is just one part of the controversial Army aviation restructure initiative. Another is to retire its Bell TH-67 Creek and OH-58 Kiowa training helicopters, replacing them with Airbus UH-72 Lakotas, which are currently flown by the Army National Guard for stateside missions.
Lundy is a Kiowa pilot. That aircraft will be retired under the Army aviation restructure plan.
The Pentagon’s 2015 budget proposal calls for buying an additional 100 Lakotas for pilot training. Lundy says the new aircraft will better prepare aviators at a lower overall operating cost.
“We’re producing a high-quality aviator because he or she is being trained in something that is much closer to their go-to-war mission aircraft,” he said of the Lakota.
Representatives from Bell and AgustaWestland have criticized the move, saying the Army should have conducted a competition, and that they could provide a single-engine helicopter at much cheaper price than the twin-engine Lakota.
“We would have preferred the Army to come out and say: ‘Here’s our requirement for a new training helicopter’ and let us compete,” Scott Clifton, manager of Bell’s military business development, said in an April interview.
“We would have preferred to have at least an opportunity,” he said.
The Army plans to complete the transition to the Lakota by 2019, Lundy said.
“It’s not going to be a one-for-one swap,” he said. “We’re gradually going to draw down.”
At Fort Rucker, the service is building up its Lakota instructor pilots, Lundy said. The base has received its first five aircraft. Student pilots will start training in the Lakota next year, Lundy said.
Using one aircraft instead of two for pilot training will speed up the process, since students will need to familiarize themselves with only one aircraft, Lundy said.
“One aircraft, the Lakota, enables us to be able to gain that time back that we’re wasting on that second aircraft and the basic training of it and do other things,” he said.
For instance, the Army will be able to train pilots using night-vision goggles in the Lakota. They are currently trained to use night-vision goggles once they graduate to Chinook or Black Hawk helos, which are far more expensive to fly. There is not enough time under the current training syllabus to train on night vision since students must be trained on two training aircraft, the general said.
Lundy said moving night-vision goggle training into the Lakota will save the Army about $30 million per year.
Lundy showed Hagel all three aircraft: the Creek, Kiowa and Lakota. During the tour, Lundy pointed out the digital avionics in the Lakota versus the other legacy models.
Instructor pilots who briefed Hagel on the individual aircraft said they supported the plan to use Lakotas for the mission.
In a meeting with reporters, Lundy said the Lakota has a better simulator capability than the Creek and Kiowa. ■