WASHINGTON — The Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Allyn said the service plans to budget for an 11th Combat Aviation Brigade in South Korea and four Apache battalions for the Army National Guard in the next budget plan, but stressed that funding those formations would come at a price elsewhere.
Keeping a forward-stationed 11th CAB in South Korea and building four AH-46 Apache helicopter battalions were both recommendations from the National Commission on the Future of the Army, which issued its report in January.
"They are, from our perspective, high-priority recommendations because they directly contribute to readiness," Allyn said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast here on Tuesday. "The retention of an 11th CAB in Korea reduces stress on an already highly stressed aviation fleet. They are one of the most high-demand capabilities that we have in the Army."
In terms of the Apache battalion plus-up, Allyn added, "The additional battalions, again, build a bit of depth strategically for surge capacity."
The commission recommended keeping an 11th CAB in South Korea in the wake of the Army's decision to go from 11 CABs down to 10, cutting the one in Korea, and meeting the country's needs through a rotational basing scheme beginning in 2019.
Keeping an 11th CAB in the Army doesn't come cheap and would likely cost the service around $1.9 billion.
The four Apache battalions are intended to resolve a dispute between the active force and the Guard over a 2013 decision to restructure its aviation fleet. That plan — the Aviation Restructure Initiative — would retire all of the Army's OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters and take all AH-64s out of the National Guard and place them with active units. The Guard pushed back, saying it should mirror the active force in capability.
The commission's recommendation to give the Guard some Apaches comes with a hefty price tag. Apaches are one of the most expensive items the Army buys, at $40 million each. The commission calculated a one-time cost of $420 million to convert old D-model Apaches to E-models for the Guard and an operating cost per year estimated to be about $165 million.
To pay for those expensive forces, budgeted in the fiscal 2018 to 2022 five-year funding plan, "We have worked to strike a balance inside the future [program objective memorandum]," Allyn said, especially as it remains uncertain whether Congress will be capable of coming to an agreement that would end sequestration or decide to increase defense spending to deal with global crises.
With a limited budget, "it's a matter of balancing modernization, and making some very hard calls on the timelines for modernizing the rest of our aviation fleet is the primary driver on how we balance that," Allyn said. "In other words, there is no free chicken."
The Army is already getting close to slowing down its procurement timelines for its aviation assets to the maximum extent possible without breaching contracts or causing price tags to go up to unaffordable rates.
The service's $15.1 billion 2017 procurement request was $1.3 billion less than what was enacted in 2016. Within the modernization account, Army aviation took the biggest hit.
The Army has seen some congressional support in shoring up some of those cuts proposed in the President's budget request, but both the 2017 defense-policy and spending bills have to make it through the conference process before it's clear what more the service will get in its aviation accounts.