Maj. Gen. Walter Stewart: Army Plan for Helicopters Will Make Us Less Ready, Not More

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This article originally appeared on the Patriot News Opinion Page Wednesday. Link to original article here.

I recall a favorite remark used by former Pennsylvania adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Gerald T. Sajer: “We’re out of money, now we have to think.”

General Sajer used this when subordinates would come to him asking for money to do the things he expected us to do.  His meaning is clear: In an environment of tight budgets, thinking is essential. How sad that this philosophy seems lost on contemporary governments. I suppose this is because when money taps flow full, thinking taps slow to a trickle.
 
This trickle is where 2014 finds the Defense Department. Only now, by necessity, the money tap is closing as well. And the howls and protests from service leaders grown fat from years of largess has me wondering if Pentagon insularity led them to believe it would go on forever.
 
Largess is clearly at the heart of a recent Department of the Army (DA) proposal to remake many of its active and reserve-component helicopter units. The plan impacts on the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, and other state Guards, by transferring 108 of the UH-72 helicopters Congress specifically funded for state missions to Ft. Rucker, Ala., and swapping active utility helicopters for Army National Guard attack helicopters.
 
The swap part of this is so profound as to have caught the attention of The Wall Street Journal, which reported it on Page A3 of its Jan. 22 edition. Julian Barnes, the reporter, surely sensed something amiss because he included criticism of the plan by defense expert Todd Harrison from the bipartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments: “Instead of taking things out of the reserve component and putting it in the active, you might do the opposite.”  Harrison is thinking rationally, because what he suggests will preserve combat readiness while saving billions in short and long term dollars. DA’s plan will do the opposite.
 
During my time in service, I participated in several DA-directed aviation reorganizations, but this latest, if brought to fruition, is the first that will degrade overall combat readiness rather than enhance it. With the stroke of a DA pen, two fully mission capable helicopter units – one active, one Guard - move to the not-mission-capable column, and with years of training and hundreds of millions of dollars needed to bring them back.
 
I’ll use the Pennsylvania Guard’s AH-64 attack battalion headquartered at Johnstown, Pa., as an example. Only recently returned from Afghanistan, where it proved its combat mettle, the unit's attack helicopters will be pulled by the DA and replaced with utility helicopters. Wham! A DA-level version of a basic training sergeant’s rock drill: “Soldier, pick up this rock (helicopter) and carry it over there, and the rock (helicopter) that is already there, carry back here.”


A Pennsylvania Army Guard AH-64 Apache conducts live fire training, 2010.
Photo credit: PA National Guard

The AH-64 is the most complex mission aircraft in the Army inventory, and the sunk training costs represented by Johnstown’s combat proven soldiers and machines is staggering, surely in the hundreds of millions of dollars. To a lesser degree, the same goes for the active unit that will lose its utility helicopters to Johnstown. The Wall Street Journal, being numbers-focused, surely has a sense of the fiscal impact of DA’s proposed disruption, but, unlike military leaders, can have no concept of the time and dollars needed to retrain two complex helicopter units from scratch. Essentially, the sunk costs DA plans to throw in the trash will have to be duplicated.

Defense experts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments get this, and many in Congress do as well. Rather than a costly shuffling of helicopters – rock drills by another name - leave the National Guard with the helicopters it has and bring in more. Pennsylvania could easily absorb a utility helicopter unit transferred from the active Army, and the unit could be aligned with an active organization for training guidance and war plans. Active-Guard alignments are not new and worked well in previous periods of constrained budgets.

One of the Guard’s great strengths is that we field soldiers and units for a fraction of what it costs the active component. Yes, we hear Army leaders talk about their units being “more ready,” but readiness is relative. In helicopter units it comes from turning wrenches and turning rotors, and the airspace over sparsely populated Central Pennsylvania, in my opinion, is superior to that over many active bases.

Years ago the Pennsylvania Army National Guard received permission from the Pennsylvania Game Commission to conduct low-level and night-vision flight training in hundreds of thousands of acres of game lands. And the performance of our units in Iraq and Afghanistan prove that we made good use of it.

Couple these huge over-flight areas with the high-tech gunnery and instrument flying simulators located at Fort Indiantown Gap, and Pennsylvania can be proud that it has what I consider the finest helicopter training base east of the Mississippi River. DA needs to make more use of it, not less.

General Sajer demanded that we think.  We did, and we are.

Major Gen. (Ret.) Walter L. Stewart is a former commander of the 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, and was the first commander of the 28th Aviation Brigade, 28th Infantry Division. He writes from Bernville, Pa.

 

Comments

From what I heard, the ARNG will reduce its total helicopters by about 100 and the active Army will reduce its helicopters by about twice that, 200 or something. That seems like a pretty good move to me, cut more of the expensive active Army and cut less of the cheaper ARNG. Someone explained it to me on a percentage basis, and it is even more favorable for the ARNG using that comparison, So, isn't that what Maj Gen Stewart is arguing? I don't understand the complaint.

To Don Hoe: That is just it. The Active Component's messaging and complaints are contrary to their very own rationale and asserted logic. Additional information on cost comparisons can be found in a short vignette written in response to a Rand Study suggesting Guard is less cost efficient found at www.bladestall.blogspot.com .

Sir, Thanks for explaining that the plan makes no sense. Congress purchased helicopters for the states to replace the UH-1 and OH-58 fleet. Congress purchased UH-60s for the active duty for the same purpose. We are talking about replacing inexpensive TH-67 trainers with multi-million dollar mission aircraft (they can't fly missions if they are dedicated to training). Meanwhile, the UH-60s will be removed from active duty and therefore can't fly missions. The UH-60s may pickup the missions for the states but at a much higher cost than the LUH mission aircraft. So, we are replacing helicopters with more expensive helicopters in all cases so far. Then, we are going to move the most expensive helicopter to support, the AH-64 onto active duty to replace the OH-58D (another replacement of an inexpensive aircraft with a more expensive one).

The only cost reduction I see is the reduction of mission ready units which must be replaced, meaning new modern aircraft. So if the goal is to retire all single engine relatively inexpensive aircraft and replace them with new multi-engine aircraft and increase our overall cost to support the same missions with several years of retraining needed to get back to where we are now, I guess this plan will achieve that goal.

If we want to maintain our readiness and support the Army and the States with helicopters, I agree we need to THINK.

Thanks again Sir.

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