WASHINGTON — The US Army plans to transfer 24 attack helicopters from Germany to Alaska over the next two years as part of a larger cost-saving aviation plan, according to a senior Army official, but the move could send mixed signals as Washington tries to reassure European allies amid Russian aggression.
Maj. Gen. Gary Cheek, Army assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and policy, told reporters on April 14 that 24 AH-64 Apache helicopters from Germany will join a company, or 12, unmanned Gray Eagles in Alaska by 2017.
Only one combat aviation brigade (CAB) is permanently stationed in Europe, the 12th CAB, headquartered in Katterbach. An Army spokesman would not confirm it as the source of the Apaches — a sensitive issue as the Army has yet to formally announce two of the three combat aviation brigades it plans to render inactive.
With budget-driven efforts to draw down its presence in Europe on the one hand and a need to deter Russian aggression on the other, the US is walking a fine line. Analysts said moving Apaches now would be out of balance.
"At a time when the US is rightly pressing our European allies to do more, reducing real capability in Europe sends the wrong message — to our allies and to the Russians," said former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "This is a time when budget decisions need to be reviewed in terms of geopolitical reality — which now includes a growing Russian threat to security in Europe."
Cheek spoke with reporters after a congressional hearing on Army modernization in which Army officials were questioned by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, about the importance of the Arctic in light of increased Russian military activity in the region. Cheek told Sullivan the Apaches and Gray Eagles were going to Alaska.
The Apaches are part of the Army's overarching aviation restructure, billed by the service as means to save $12 billion. The active component would divest itself of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior fleet and pull Apaches from the National Guard to fill the gap, providing UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in turn. The Army would also close three of its 13 combat aviation brigades, and has so far named only the 159th at Fort Campbell, Kentucky — which lost 2,400 soldiers in the inactivation.
Cheek declined to say which unit would be next, but hinted at the fraught politics involved. "Whether it's the United States or overseas, there are a lot of people who don't want you to do that, and that's what we're dealing with," he said.
The restructure has faced opposition from the Guard, and Congress has ordered the plans be studied. Congress placed a block on any Apache transfers in 2015, allowing as many as 48 to be moved next year. It also created a commission to evaluate the restructure and the overall balance between active, Guard, and reserve forces — reporting back by Feb. 1, 2016. The commissioners were named last month.
The 24 Apaches planned for Alaska will come from "reset facilities," and go to Fort Wainwright, in Fairbanks, to convert the 6th Squadron, 17 Cavalry Regiment, into an armed reconnaissance squadron, said Matthew Bourke, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. The 6-17 in 2014 was one of the first units to lose its Kiowas in the restructure.
The 12 Gray Eagles would be stationed in Alaska, though the exact location is under negotiations with the Air Force. The Army is seeking to station them at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, though the Air Force also operates at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, where the Federal Aviation Administration has approved the use of unmanned aviation.
Analyst Magnus Nordenman, deputy director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, called the the transfer of helicopters out of Europe "a surprising decision" in light of the security situation in Europe and Russia's aggressiveness. Though not a game changer, "it adds to the uncertainty in Europe around the US role in European security," he said.
"US allies in Europe are closely watching every move the US makes in terms of forces going in and coming out of Europe, and Russia does as well," he said. "The move could feed an impression in Moscow that the US is not serious about deterrence in Europe after all, and the allies may also come to doubt US intentions."
"In order to deter further aggression and to reassure US allies, it is important to have assets with real teeth on the ground in Europe. Apache helicopters certainly provide those kind of teeth," Nordenman said.
The US' European Infrastructure Consolidation, announced this year, will return 15 sites to their host nations, and in the process save the government about $500 million each year. When the consolidation is over, US European Command will have 17 main operating bases in Europe.
On the flip side, its European Reassurance Initiative is a funding package for stepped-up rotations and multilateral exercises, to enhance prepositioned stocks of equipment, and military aid to NATO and non-NATO allies. The Atlantic Resolve exercises this month featured a high-profile "Dragoon Ride," in which US soldiers and their Strykers undertook a two-week, 1,900-kilometer road march through Eastern Europe.
The US Army has increased troop rotations in Europe and is forward stationing an armored brigade's worth of tanks and Bradleys, called an "activity set," for rotational troops to use. The equipment would be used for training purposes and is intended to improve US European Command's ability to respond to a crisis and surge combat power if needed.
US Army Europe's commander, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, has said he is also exploring rotational aviation to help maintain the command's aviation capabilities and meet demands.
In March, the 4-3 Assault Helicopter Battalion from Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, deployed to Europe with 25 helicopters and 450 people and became attached temporarily to the 12th CAB. The battalion, which operates UH-60M and HH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, distributed troops and equipment throughout the Baltic and Balkan regions as part of the rotation.
The 12th CAB's commander, Col. Vincent Torza, said at a conference in Washington in February that Army aviation is a critical component in a "strong Europe." With frequent rotations to Afghanistan, recent missions have taken elements of the CAB to Kuwait, Iraq and Sinai, as well as exercises in Poland and the Baltics.
"This is my third tour over in Europe and I've never been busier, nor have our aviation assets been busier in Europe," Torza said, adding later: "For us, as the 12th CAB, being right now the current, only Army aviation in Europe, every rotation has an aviation task force from 12th CAB."