It was late on a very busy day in Kandahar, Afghanistan, before Lt. Col. Benny Collins could find the time to place a call back to the United States.
For the past eight-plus months, Collins and others with the North Carolina Army National Guard’s 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 130th Aviation, have been going full bore, accruing more than 15,000 flight hours in support of the train, advise and assist mission in southern Afghanistan.
“[The operational tempo] is very, very high,” Collins told National Guard. “There’s not an easy day. There’s not a break. There’s a lot. … We’re doing what we train to do.”
The unit is one of four AH-64D Apache attack-helicopter battalions in the Army Guard. But its deployment required the involvement of the entire Guard Apache force.
The Apache, sometimes called a flying tank, is one of the most lethal weapons in the Army inventory. The armored twin-turboshaft helicopters boast a 30 mm M230 chain gun and a mix of Hydra 70 rockets and Hellfire missiles that can destroy a target from miles away.
As late as five years ago, the Army Guard had eight battalions of 24 Apaches, but a series of events have cut the force to four units of 18 aircraft. That’s 72 Apaches total, which the remaining battalions must share to meet the requirement of 24 aircraft to deploy. Active-component Apache units all have 24 aircraft.
With fewer aircraft and a more demanding operational tempo created by a smaller force, Guard Apache units have undertaken what amounts to an intricate game of musical chairs with one of the Army’s most complex weapons systems.
The battalions are “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul” to support a series of deployments to Afghanistan that include each of the four, says Col. Greg Hartvigsen, the commander of the Arizona Army Guard’s 98th Aviation Troop Command who is chairman of the NGAUS Army Aviation Task Force. They simply don’t have enough aircraft to operate independently, he says.
“There’s not an easy day. There’s not a break. There’s a lot. … We’re doing what we train to do.”
—Lt. Col. Benny Collins Commander, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 130th Aviation North Carolina National Guard Kandahar, Afghanistan
Collins says Guard Apache battalions have always worked closely with one another. But having to pool aircraft has brought them even closer. Deploying one battalion has become a group effort.
“Everyone is really all-in to help each other,” he says, “to get that next [unit] ready.”
The current arrangement means that one-third of the Guard’s Apaches are in Afghanistan and another third are with Utah’s 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 211th Aviation, the next Guard Apache battalion slated to deploy.
The rest are split between the 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 149th Aviation, which has units in Texas and Mississippi, and South Carolina’s 1stAttack Reconnaissance Battalion, 151st Aviation, which returned from a deployment to Afghanistan last summer.
Col. Ricky Smith, the state Army aviation officer for the Utah National Guard, says shuttling aircraft also makes it difficult for the units to maintain readiness rates and find flight time for pilots, but he says the four battalions have cooperated to overcome these issues.
They have also had to share resources to meet the Guard’s obligations to support training at the National Training Center in California and the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana.
“It is a very, very busy schedule for these guys,” Hartvigsen says. “And there’s not much relief in sight.”
Compounding the aircraft shortage, the Army has reduced the number of Guard seats available at the Army’s aviation schoolhouse, which makes it difficult to recruit and integrate new members.
All of this hits the South Carolina battalion the hardest, according to Hartvigsen. He says the unit is “paying the tax” as the latest unit to return from Afghanistan. It has to reconstitute after natural post-deployment attrition without many aircraft or school seats. Fewer aircraft also challenges regular unit training.
“Aircrew members are unable to train at our normal rate due to lack of aircraft,” says Lt. Col. Brian Pipkin, the battalion commander. Collective training is not possible. And the unit is relying heavily on simulators, he adds.
If Army leaders had their way six years ago, the Army Guard would have no Apaches. The service’s 2013 Aviation Restructure Initiative consolidated its Apaches in the active component, in part to replace the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, a scout helicopter the Army retired in 2017.
At the time, the Guard had Apache battalions in Arizona, Idaho, Missouri and Pennsylvania, in addition to those in the force today. ARI would have converted all eight to UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. It also shifted the one Guard Kiowa unit, which was in Tennessee, to Black Hawks. The combined result would have been the end of attack aviation in the Guard.
The Army said the plan created efficiencies and saved money, most of it from retiring the Kiowas. Guard leaders countered that ARI discounted the value of the Guard’s experienced Apache pilots and maintainers and failed to account for the personnel turbulence.
ARI become a flashpoint between the Guard and Army leaders. Congress responded by creating the National Commission on the Future of the Army in 2014 to provide an independent look at the aviation plan and other points of contention among the three components of the service.
Gen. Mark A. Milley took over as Army chief of staff in 2015 and committed the service to following the commission’s lead on Apache basing. That recommendation, included in its January 2016 final report, was the current force of four Guard battalions of 18 aircraft.
“Cost” drove the 18-aircraft recommendation, said retired Gen. Carter Hamm, the commission chair who is now president and chief executive officer of the Association of the United States Army.
Hartvigsen, a Guard aviation expert on the commission staff, says the commission’s charter limited its thinking to “available and foreseeable future resources.” But, he adds, the final report makes clear it thought the Guard Apache fleet should grow if more modernization dollars became available.
Two years passed before the National Guard Bureau announced the four battalions that would remain. In the interim, the commercial airline industry began targeting full-time Army helicopter pilots and the active-component Army suddenly had an Apache pilot shortage.
Meanwhile, the Guard had pilots but was about to lose units. New threats around the globe had also emerged. As a result, Guard leaders urged the Army to keep six Guard battalions or at least provide four fully equipped units, but the service stuck to the commission recommendation.
For the South Carolina battalion, the announcement was a chance to exhale. The unit was in Afghanistan in January 2018 with an Apache company from Pennsylvania that had to inactivate upon its return.
“Aircrew members are unable to train at our normal rate due to lack of aircraft.”
—Lt. Col. Brian Pipkin, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 151st Aviation South Carolina Army National Guard
Pipkin, the battalion commander, says the deployment was a success. But the uncertainty compounded the obstacles it faced while preparing for its mission, with some soldiers delaying reenlistment due to the uncertain future or opting for a more secure position.
Modernization, or lack of it, has been another issue. The Army began fielding the AH-64E in 2013. It’s faster and more powerful than the D-models the Guard operates. It also has better electronics and is designed to operate with unmanned aerial vehicles. The Guard, however, was not in the fielding plans.
That changed only late last year. Congress added funds for six E-models, also known as the AH–64 Apache Block IIIB, to the Army’s fiscal 2019 appropriations specifically for the Guard. Plans are for the battalion in South Carolina to receive them. Their arrival will formally begin Guard Apache modernization.
In addition, the Army has quietly committed to bring all four battalions up to 24 aircraft. Smith, the Utah state Army aviation officer, says all four Guard battalions “should” have E-model Apaches by the end of 2025.
Hartvigsen, the NGAUS Aviation Task Force chairman, says all this will require continued funding in the years ahead. “There’s momentum in the Army and Congress,” he says, “but it’s yet to happen.”
The association, which made modernizing and fully equipping the Guard Apache battalions a priority in recent years, will continue to keep the issue at the forefront, says Mike Hadley, the NGAUS legislative director
In Afghanistan now, Collins, the North Carolina battalion commander, leads a multifunctional aviation task force that is twice the size of his unit back home and has CH-47 Chinooks and Black Hawks in addition to Apaches.
The nearly 700 soldiers in Task Force Panther include other Guard units and active-component personnel. They are living and working across several bases in southern Afghanistan, supporting special operations and conventional forces and Afghan partners.
“We’re spread out in so many places, doing so much,” Collins says. Reconnaissance, close-air support, air assaults, resupply missions and continuous maintenance and refueling are all part of the daily regimen. “Where we are now, it takes constant communication. We have to react quickly to change. And our mechanics, pilots, operations, refuelers make it happen every day.”
The unit is moving at “500 mph,” he says, but will soon be heading home. An active-component replacement battalion from Fort Bliss, Texas, has already arrived to relieve Task Force Panther.
“The tour has been exhausting, but the hard work of the soldiers and officers has paid off with one mission success after another,” Collins says.
Army leaders say the Apache is critical to current battlefield operations, but they warn that proper training with the war machines is essential.
“The AH-64 is arguably the most complex weapon system in the DoD inventory and it can take years to master the operations, employment and logistical support to be successful in a high-intensity warfight,” Smith says.“Untrained AH-64 battalions can quickly become the Army’s most significant liability, rather than its greatest force multiplier.
As Guard leaders predicted, the force structure changes did not trigger a migration of Apache pilots and maintainers from shuttered units to those still flying. Unlike their active-component counterparts, most Guardsmen pick a state and stay there — as long as they can.
Pipkin says one aviator from Pennsylvania decided to make the move. Others have expressed interest but have not followed through. In Utah, Smith says the battalion there could not attract pilots and maintainers from nearby states that lost their Apache battalions. It currently has full-time and part-time positions open.
Hartvigsen says most soldiers in eliminated states retrained to fly or maintain Black Hawk and UH-72 Lakota helicopters. Those who didn’t make the switch either retired or left the Guard.
“It’s ironic,” he says. “As a Total Army, we’re struggling to keep Apache pilots. But we’ve got a whole bunch of Apache personnel that we let leave or converted to other aircraft.
And the lure of the commercial airlines or other contractors is less of an issue in the Guard, Hartvigsen says, because pilots can usually do both — fly commercially full time and serve in the Guard part time. But the lack of trained pilots in the active component has affected the Guard in another way.
With the active component struggling to keep Apache pilots in the force, active-component pilot trainees have priority at the Army’s aviation schoolhouse at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where a furious attempt to fill the increasingly depleted pilot ranks is underway.
The lack of available training seats for Guard aviators means units are struggling to overcome natural pilot attrition. In addition, fewer Guard pilots are able to train to become instructor pilots or maintenance test pilots, which inhibits the ability of units to train, Hartvigsen says.
To accelerate pilot training ahead of its upcoming deployment, Smith said Utah hosted a mobile training team to qualify nine pilots. But even that came at a cost, distracting the unit during the support of two combat training center missions.
Meanwhile, more than one battalion reports sending pilots for Apache training at Rucker only for them to return after training with an entirely different helicopter — often the Black Hawk.
Hartvigsen says he sees no solution to the training-seat shortage. He would like the Army to open another Apache pilot-training center. “This path is not sustainable without some change,” he says. He says the lack of training seats is a bigger issue to the Guard than the lack of aircraft.
“My big concern about aircraft will get fixed,” Hartvigsen says. “But this is a people business. Having sufficient depth and training throughput is the biggest worry that I have. Aircraft can be moved, but we’ve got to have the people and they’ve got to be trained.”
DREW BROOKS can be reached at 202-408-5885 or [email protected] ngaus.org.
NGAUS began opposing the Army’s 2013 Aviation Restructure Initiative on first read.
Developed with little National Guard input, ARI had several provisions, but the centerpiece was the transfer of all the Army Guard’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopters (192 aircraft from eight battalions) to the active component to replace the OH-58D Kiowa Warriors it wanted to retire.
The plan effectively took attack aviation out of the Army Guard, thus squandering the Army’s most skilled Apache pilots and maintainers and leaving the service without a surge capacity.
ARI would also leave active-component Apache pilots leaving the service with no place to serve.
NGAUS worked with Congress to create the National Commission on the Future of the Army to look at proposal. The association testified before the group and worked closely with commission members and staff. It also set up meetings between company-grade officers and commission members at the annual NGAUS conference in 2015.
Once the commission recommended the retention of four Guard Apache battalions of 18 aircraft, the association began the appeal to make the units mirror their active-component counterparts.
In 2017, NGAUS made modernizing and bringing the number of aircraft authorized in Guard Apache battalions one of its top priorities. Last year, Congress added funds for six new-build E-model Apaches specifically for the Guard.
In addition, the Army agreed to increase to 24 the number of aircraft in each of the Guard Apache battalions.
The effort to fully equip and modernize each of the four battalions will take several budget cycles. The association will continue to bring voice to the need until the effort is complete and will oppose efforts to divert funds to other programs, such as Future Vertical Lift.
The association will also push for sufficient school slots or more school locations to satisfy unit needs.
—NGAUS staff report