The Army plans to divest its fleet of OH-58 Kiowa helicopters and use the AH-64 Apache, shown above, to fill the Kiowa's reconnaissance and scout role. (Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht/Air Force)
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The Army’s combat aviation brigades are in for an overhaul if the service moves forward with a sweeping — and already controversial — proposal to restructure Army aviation.
The proposal, which officials say is driven by shrinking budgets, calls for the Army to divest its fleet of the OH-58 Kiowa helicopter and use the AH-64 Apache to fill the Kiowa’s reconnaissance and scout role.
It would pull Apaches from the National Guard inventory to fill the gap, and the Army would, in turn, provide the Guard with UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, a medium-lift utility helicopter that officials believe will give the Guard more capability as it conducts its homeland defense and disaster response missions at home.
The aircraft moves will then allow the Army to reorganize its combat aviation brigades, which now come in several configurations, into one standard formation. All active-duty aviation brigades will have the same makeup and number of aircraft, and all but two of the reserve component’s aviation brigades will look the same.
This proposal, which has drawn objections and even a White House petition from Guard advocates who don’t want their home states to lose the Apache helicopter, is meant to help the Army avoid losing airframes in a haphazard manner, officials said.
“With the budget that we have, if we don’t do anything, we’re going to end up cutting out hundreds of aircraft, and they may not be the right ones,” Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell told Army Times on Jan. 6. “We want to control our destiny and make sure we only take out the aircraft that makes sense.”
The streamlining called for in the proposal also allows the Army to modernize the aircraft it has in hand, Campbell said.
“If we don’t, then our aviation for the future’s going to be in the hole,” he said. “If we do not do this, then we’re not going to have the best aviation in the world like we have today.”
In its Jan. 14 Washington report, the National Guard Association of the United States said “several adjutants general have voiced their disapproval with the [Army’s] plan” and the National Guard Bureau was to reveal its own proposal “in an attempt to slow the Army plan’s momentum.”
When asked about the Army’s proposal and the Guard’s counter-proposal, Rick Breitenfeldt, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, said, “At this stage, it would not be appropriate to discuss specifics or potential outcomes other than say we’ll continue to work together with the Army.”
CABs become ABs
One key element to the proposal is the reorganization of the combat aviation brigades, which were in high demand over the past 12 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the height of those wars, the demand for these brigades, which each have about 2,800 soldiers, was so high that the units virtually were conducting back-to-back deployments, and the Army rushed to build more.
The 13th combat aviation brigade is still being built today at Fort Carson, Colo., and the unit isn’t expected to officially be completed until April.
However, as the Army faces the ongoing budget crisis, some combat aviation brigades may get the ax.
“We are going to potentially go down to 10, as opposed to 13,” Campbell said.
Whether the Army has 13 or 10 aviation brigades, the service will still look to standardize those units, officials said.
“We can’t have all the brigades exactly the same [because] we don’t have enough assets across the board, but we do believe we can standardize all of the brigades in the active component in one configuration and … about 80 percent of formations in the reserve component would be standardized into one single formation,” said Col. Frank Tate, the Army’s chief of aviation force development.
Standardized formations will enable the Army to better plan and deploy these brigades, Tate said.
“We’ve had units cycle in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the problem we’ve had is when I send one unit in one configuration, I want to replace it with a unit with a like capability,” he said.
With as many as seven different types of aviation brigades, whose designs were driven by the available aircraft, the Army was pulling battalions or companies from across the active and reserve components to meet different deployment demands, causing unit cycles to “get out of kilter,” Tate said.
“If we have one standard configuration, it’s much easier to replace them,” he said. “As we go forward, any one of our divisions can be called upon to take on battlespace, and one of the lessons of this war is it makes sense for us to standardize.”
The goal is to have all active-duty aviation brigades look the same, Tate said. As part of the shift, the term “CAB” is also changing. Officials plan to drop the “combat” and simply call them “aviation brigades,” or ABs.
“In light of the redesign effort then, the attachment of the word ‘combat’ to some brigade designs seemed redundant,” said Col. John Lindsay, the director of Army aviation. “And the omission of the term from others implies an undefined role other than combat.”
Each active-duty brigade will have an assault battalion with Black Hawks; a general aviation support battalion with Black Hawks, medevacs and CH-47 Chinooks; an attack battalion with Apaches; an armed reconnaissance squadron with Apaches that will be teamed with RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aerial vehicles; and an aviation support battalion.
This configuration almost mirrors what a medium CAB looks like today, except the Kiowa squadron is replaced by the Apache and Shadow squadron.
In the reserve component, where the Army National Guard has 11 aviation brigades and the Army Reserve has one, 10 of the brigades will be reorganized to look alike.
Each of those brigades will have two assault battalions with Black Hawks; a general support aviation battalion that will have two 15-ship medevac companies; and an aviation support battalion.
This configuration will “optimize the National Guard brigades for airlift and medevac,” Tate said. “It’s perfect for homeland defense, disaster relief, and is a critical combat capability that the active component needs when we deploy to a contingency. Even though the Guard loses in terms of numbers of aircraft, the beauty of this plan is they gain life capacity. They’ll have more lift than they have today.”
'Smaller, leaner' force
“Dual-use capability” was a driving force when coming up with the active and reserve-component designs, Lindsay said.
“We think we’ve created some excellent optimal capabilities in the reserve component,” he said.
Of the remaining two brigades, one will have four general support aviation battalions, and the other, which will include aircraft and personnel from the Guard and Reserve, will have UH-72 Lakota helicopters.
“Every brigade will be impacted by this change,” Tate said.
The Army continues to plan and work with the Army, Guard and Reserve on this proposal, Lindsay said.
“We’re looking forward to a decision in the near future,” he said.
If approved, the goal is to complete this as quickly as possible, likely between fiscal 2015 and 2019, Tate said.
“The objective is to make a complete change and come out with this new, standardized design in a smaller, leaner force by the end of ’19,” he said.
Any aviation-related decision is not made lightly, Lindsay said.
“Aviation is a highly valued, highly prized combat multiplier,” he said.