New York Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters lift 105mm howitzers to a location at Fort Drum, New York. Black Hawk modernization is a major challenge facing the National Guard. (Sgt. 1st Class Steven Petibone / US Army National)
WASHINGTON — The US Army has been saying for a decade that once the last American soldier leaves Afghanistan, the service will need at least two to three years of additional supplemental funding to reset and modernize.
With the last US troops scheduled to leave Kabul at the end of 2016, ending 15 years of war, that bill is coming closer to its due date.
While much attention has been placed on what Big Army needs to reset and modernize its vehicles, rotary wing and soldier equipment, the National Guard also has substantial reset bills that it is unsure how to meet, beginning with its No. 1 priority: modernizing its UH-60 Black Hawk fleet.
“The Guard has a lot of Black Hawk helicopters, but what the Army National Guard needs is more modern helicopters,” said John Goheen, director of communications for the National Guard Association of the United States. “The numbers are sufficient; modernization is the issue.”
Goheen said the service’s CH-47 Chinook fleet is on a steady glide path for reset and refit, “but what we don’t have is a modernization schedule for the Black Hawk.”
The annual National Guard and Reserve Equipment report issued by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs in March placed Black Hawk reset at the top of its priority list, reporting that the health of the “Black Hawk fleet is of concern, being the oldest in the Army. The H-60 series modernization is delayed by budget reductions and slowing cascades” from the active duty force.
Conversion of the CH-47D Chinook to the CH-47F model is fully funded, however.
Other priorities include modernization of the Army National Guard’s tactical wheeled vehicle fleet, which, thanks to more than a decade of huge supplemental wartime budgets, has seen dramatic increases in modernized equipment, with 82 percent of the fleet “considered modern in 2013,” the report states.
“Congress and the Army have been quite generous over the past 10 years,” Goheen said, so when it comes to equipment modernization, “we’re in much better shape than we were a decade ago.”
The White House’s fiscal 2015 budget request included $23.5 billion for the National Guard, a decrease of 8 percent from the previous year.
The Guard’s leadership is also concerned about the condition of its stateside repair facilities, many of which “are more than 50 years old and are neither designed nor equipped to provide a safe, environmentally friendly workplace, capable of meeting the demands of the Army’s two-level maintenance doctrine to support and maintain a modern and complex, up-armored vehicle fleet” the report said.
That said, the report ultimately concludes the Army National Guard of today is “the best-equipped force in its long history” with equipment on-hand levels at 91 percent, up from 77 percent in recent years.
But even with some of the stocks of equipment looking healthy, the armed forces are anticipating a wave of gear from Afghanistan that is in dire need of repair.
During a hearing of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee in March, National Guard chief Gen. Frank Grass warned that “over the next two years a lot of equipment will be returning out of Afghanistan that needs to go through reset and depot — basically called back to zero miles.”
Grass also said he’s concerned about both ground vehicles and helicopters.
“We use rotary wing assets every month somewhere rescuing someone as a part of the Air Force Rescue Center. And the more the depots have a backlog the less we’ll be able to get our equipment out of there,” he said.
The general also warned that due to the sequestration cuts, the Guard may have to accept delivery of new UH-72 Lakota helicopters and “put them in flyable storage until we can get flying and be able to buy the repair parts as we fly them. So we’re very concerned.”
On Aug. 6, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, told a Washington area conference that he had asked the Army to present its “business case” for its proposal to retire two types of training helicopters while replacing them with 100 new Lakotas.
The proposal is part of a larger plan the Army rolled out last December to mothball the TH-67 Creek and OH-58 Kiowa helicopters while shifting National Guard AH-64 Apaches into the active duty force, swapping them with the Guard for Black Hawks.
So much of this plan comes down to getting the reset money in supplemental budgets after 2016, however.
Speaking with a small group of reporters this month at the Pentagon before leaving to take over command of NATO troops in Afghanistan, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell said the service has known since the start of the Iraq war that it would take years to reset the force after the final withdrawal from combat ops.
“In 2004 we were saying already that we were going to need two years of OCO [overseas contingency operations funding] once we get the last piece of equipment out,” he said. “Over the last couple of years we made a reassessment and said we really need about three years of OCO to reset all of this equipment.”
But the heavy reliance on supplemental budgets has come with a cost. The OCO accounts “have been sort of like crack cocaine; once you get on it you don’t want to get off of it. And we’re looking very hard at some of the things we can’t do as we transition some of the stuff we’ve done with OCO back into the base” budget, he said. ■