WASHINGTON — House appropriators Thursday questioned the Army’s decision to cut 35 percent of its planned aviation modernization funding from the fiscal 2017 budget request and strongly urged the service to reconsider the move. But Army leaders said the only way the cuts could be reversed would be to get additional funding.
Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said the committee “certainly understands” the challenges the Army is facing to fund readiness and keep within budget caps set by Congress, “but it’s difficult to understand why aviation has been so heavily targeted.
“You don’t really think we are going to go along with the cut to Army aviation by 35 percent,” he asked. “Do you really believe that?”
The Army’s $15.1 billion 2017 procurement request is $1.3 billion less than what was enacted in 2016.
Within modernization, Army aviation took the biggest punch. The service is asking for just 36 UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters, a drastic reduction to the 107 Black Hawks appropriated in 2016 and 24 fewer than it planned in 2016 to buy in 2017.
In addition to new aircraft, the Army is requesting 48 remanufactured AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, down from64 aircraft in 2016. The service is also asking for four additional Apaches within the Overseas Contingency Operations account.
The Army would also buy fewer CH-47F Chinook cargo helicopters, asking for 22 in 2017 after receiving funds for 39 helicopters in 2016.
Appropriators took issue with the aviation cuts.
“Most notably,” Appropriations Defense Subcommittee chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., said, “Army aviation is a major bill payer for preserving readiness. This comes at a time when we are hearing Army leadership saying that additional aviation assets are their highest priority as they seek to deter Russia.”
US Army Europe Commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges stressed the importance of Army air in a recent interview. “My number one need is for combat aviation. That is the biggest gap in our capabilities.” He acknowledged Europe isn’t the only show in town, adding that combat aviation is needed in such places as the Korean Peninsula.
Frelinghuysen cited a report to Congress last month from the National Commission on the Future of the Army (NCFA), noting it strongly recommended the Army “expand their aircraft procurement to meet demands in the Korean peninsula and in Europe and ensure the National Guard remains a viable partner.”
Those recommendations specifically asked to keep the 11th Combat Aviation Brigade in Korea and retain four attack helicopter battalions with 18 Apaches each in the National Guard.
“These are very, very difficult decisions,” Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy said at the hearing. “We wish we could make more investments in aviation,” he said, “ but we have to be focused on winning tonight, threats that are going on right now.”
Gen. Mark Milley, Army chief of staff, also defended the reductions.
“I think given the top-line that we have ... I think this budget as written is the most balanced budget," he told the committee. "We balanced the modernization, the readiness and the end-strength of the Army and we are taking risk, and I’ve expressed that risk as high risk relative to the national strategy and the ability to conduction operations. ... We put a lot of work into crafting that budget and we think it strikes the right balance.”
The Army chief also noted that some of the cuts come from divesting OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters, a retirement planned since 2013, and also from stretching aviation procurement over a longer period of time.
Rogers pushed the Army leaders on whether they planned to implement the NCFA’s recommendations to plus-up aviation.
The commission’s recommendations are good ideas, Milley said, but “they don’t come with a checkbook.”
“We are listening to the recommendations very closely and we want to execute some of them," he added,"but they came with no money, there’s no money associated with those. If there’s extra money associated, if someone says, ‘If you do these recommendations, here’s the money to execute them,’ then that’s great.”