WASHINGTON — Congressional language limiting Apache consolidation in fiscal 2015 won't derail the Army's controversial Aviation Restructuring Initiative (ARI), already underway, Army officials said.

Officials spearheading the effort, which has been challenged by the National Guard and its advocates, were confident the plan would proceed, saying the service has already taken broad steps toward it, canceling training, transferring air frames and shuffling budget dollars.

"The point is we are moving out with implementation," Col. John Lindsay, the director for Army aviation in the service's operations, plans and policy arm. "Aviation restructuring is happening, and if you haven't heard too much about it, it's because most if not all of the change is happening in the active component."

The five-year plan calls for the service to divest its fleet of Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters and use the Boeing AH-64 Apache to fill the Kiowa's reconnaissance and scout role. It would pull Apaches from the Guard inventory to fill the gap, and, in turn, provide the Guard with Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

The recently passed 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) bars the Apache transfers in fiscal 2015, allowing as many as 48 aircraft to be moved the following year, contingent on the secretary of the Army's certification. The move also limits any related personnel transfers and reductions of Guard personnel related to the Apache before March 31, 2016.

The NDAA created a National Commission on the Future Structure of the Army to evaluate the ARI and the overall balance between active, Guard, and Reserve forces — reporting back by Feb. 1, 2016.

The National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) spokesman John Goheen said Friday the Army is proceeding amid unanswered questions about the negative budget and readiness impacts as Guard pilots are retrained. NGAUS contends there will not be enough training seats for Guard pilots and that the Apache is not adequate for the scout mission.

"We do believe they are moving briskly," Goheen said of the Army, "and there are many things in the ARI that are irreversible, and that scares us. Once those Kiowas are gone, they're gone."

Though National Guard advocates have lauded the NDAA language as a go-slow approach, Army officials were not thrown by it. The Army created its timeline to sync with Congress' expected timeline, not calling for the inactivation of certain National Guard units until 2016, Lindsay said.

"When we were putting together our implementation plan we were very selective when it came to the timing associated with the transfer and activation of certain units," Lindsay said. "We were mindful of [Congress' timeline], and that's baked into our plan. In no way are we getting ahead of anything in the NDAA."

Though the Army has in the past opposed a commission, Brig. Gen. Frank Muth, the director of the Army's Quadrennial Defense Review office, on Thursday vowed full transparency and cooperation, even as the Army moves ahead.

"ARI is more than Apache moves, it's several other things that are already in place, and those things will continue to occur," Muth said.

The active Army has already taken the following steps, according to Army officials, who provided an update of their efforts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here Thursday:

  • Inactivated and transferred all OH-58Ds from Fort Rucker to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon for demilitarization.
  • Begun the transition its training fleet at Fort Rucker to the Airbus LUH-72A Lakota from the Bell TH-67 Creek. Twelve Lakotas are scheduled to be at Fort Rucker within weeks, with 187 Lakotas in place by fiscal 2018.
  • Cancelled training for Kiowa Warrior pilots at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and Fort Eustis, Virginia, and begun retraining.
  • Reallocated $1.4 billion in Kiowa Warrior cockpit upgrade funds, in part, for upgrades to the Shadow encrypted data link, the Grey Eagle and retraining efforts.
  • Begun conversions of AH-64D to "Echo" units, completing four.
  • Fielded 64 Grey Eagles, converting two aviation brigades to the objective structure.
  • Named the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as the first of three aviation brigades expected to be cut.
  • Retrained half of the crew chiefs in the first of two Reserve units, the 8-229 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, of Fort Knox, Kentucky.
  • Held a warrant officer transition panel that identified more than 300 warrant officers for transitions.

As part of the restructuring, the Army will retain the 159th CAB's Apache battalion, the 3-101 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, and reassign it to the 101st CAB, Army Times has reported. This gives the 101st CAB two attack battalions, each with 24 Apaches.

One will be an attack reconnaissance battalion, which will be partnered with the MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aerial system for an attack mission. The other will be an attack reconnaissance squadron tasked with pairing with the RQ-7 Shadow to take on a reconnaissance mission. The squadron is designed to replace the Kiowa element within the brigade.

The pace of the moves means the Army must align resources and personnel to have trained and ready troops fall in on the equipment starting in October, Lindsay said.

"I'm going to convert an [Apache Reconnaissance Squadron] from [OH-58s] to AH-64s," Lindsay said. "If I don't do that in October, then I'm going to have a squadron full of people in one of our divisions, 300 people, and they're going to have no airplanes, pilots and crew chiefs with only trucks."

So much has happened that, according to Col. Walter Rugen, chief of the Army Force Development Directorate's aviation division, "Just managing the implementation of the ARI has been a full time job--that goes along with managing the [aviation modernization] portfolio."

Asked about talks with Bell about the plan, Rugen said the Army is working on a Congressionally mandated study of the ARI's impact on the industrial base. Army aviation officials, he said, "are mindful we need to have a light hand on industry partners, because they provide us with these great capabilities."

The plan calls for the divestment of more than 780 legacy systems, including TH-67s and OH-58s, which will undergo a long process of demilitarization before they are made available for commercial sale, Lindsay said.

Officials noted that ARI provides $12 billion in cost avoidance over five years for an Army whose readiness levels and modernization programs are endangered by budget cuts. More than 270 programs have been impacted in some way, and 137 would be impacted by sequestration budget caps, Muth said.

The Army conceived of ARI as an alternative to sequestration-driven cuts that would have eliminated five combat aviation brigades. ARI, Lindsay said, was seen as means to "keep your best stuff" (AH-64's, CH-47s and UH-60s) and "divest your older stuff" (OH-58s and an aging training fleet.

Email: jgould@defensenews.com

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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