When the last U.S. troops were leaving Iraq in 2011, a battalion of Apache attack helicopters from the South Carolina National Guard – about 24 “birds” – were covering the withdrawal.
It was their second deployment to Iraq; the first was in 2004. There, S.C. pilots were actively involved in combat, taking hits from small arms fire, dodging enemy rockets, killing the enemy and getting wounded themselves.
Now, the Army wants to strip the National Guard of all of its 192 AH-64 Apaches in nine states, and replace them with 111 Black Hawk helicopters – aircraft used mainly for transport and evacuation. It’s a move that threatens 114 full-time jobs at McEntire Joint National Guard Base near Eastover, and another 288 part-time positions.
“It’s about (the Army) trying to cut the budget,” said Lt. Col. James Fidler, commander of the 1st Battalion, 151st Aviation, at McEntire. “And it’s about job preservation here.”
The military is set to cut more than $500 billion over the next 10 years because of the Budget Control Act of 2011, commonly called the sequester. The sequester, unless changed by Congress, would force the Army to shrink to 420,000 in 2016 from 518,000 today.
Army officials call the aircraft swap the Aviation Restructure Initiative. They view it as a simple exchange that would transfer combat roles to the active duty Army and provide the Guard with Black Hawks – utility aircraft that are better suited to the Guard’s other role of assisting states during natural disasters.
Black Hawks are sturdy, roomy utility helicopters with a crew of four. They can carry 11 people or equipment, and have 9,000 pounds of lift capacity. Apaches are sleek, two-person combat helicopters with no transport or lift ability.
While the Army is offering the Guard some Black Hawks in return, Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, adjutant general of South Carolina and the S.C. Guard’s commander, said the swap still could cut the number of jobs at the battalion by half.
“We would get half the number of Black Hawks and half the number of people,” he said.
How the swap would work
The swap works like this:
Army officials want to eliminate all of the older OH-58 Kiowas – helicopters used for armed reconnaissance – and use the former Guard Apaches in that role. In August, the Army moved ahead with the plan, deactivating a Kiowa squadron in Washington state.
But Guard officials argue that the plan would eliminate the Army’s most experienced aviators, as Guard pilots and maintainers often served in the active duty military first and have more years flying and servicing the aircraft.
And they note that flying Apaches and Black Hawks are totally different, so that the Army would not only have to train more active duty pilots and maintainers to handle the extra aircraft, but re-train the Guard personnel for Black Hawks. So, the swap might not be more cost effective.
“That’s the frustrating part of it,” Fidler said. “We can do the job more efficiently and with more readiness.”
The swap was approved by the brass at the Pentagon, but Congress and the nation’s governors – proud of their National Guard units and protective of the jobs they represent – are digging in.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley even brought it up in a meeting with President Barack Obama in February.
“As the wife of a South Carolina National Guardsman, Governor Haley knows first hand just how important the guard is to our state and their role protecting our citizens and way of life around the globe,” spokesman Doug Mayer said in a statement. “The governor has repeatedly been on record against the manner in which these cuts are being implemented, including face-to-face with President Obama, and she will continue to voice her opposition going forward.”
Study commission called for
A U.S. Senate subcommittee in July approved an appropriations bill that would allow the Guard to keep their Apaches. The House has taken up a similar amendment. Both versions call for a commission to study the roles and interaction of the Guard and Reserve with the active duty Army.
But Livingston said it might be awhile before anything is resolved. “This will be a two- or three-year discussion,” he said.
Livingston added that the issue is bigger than dollars and cents; it’s about the role of the Guard in the Army.
There has been a long-standing rivalry between the active duty Army, the Guard and the Reserve, he said. The active duty component wants the Guard to remain in support roles, viewing them as weekend warriors who should stay out of harm’s way.
The Guard was not used in major combat roles in Vietnam, Livingston said “and we lost the support of the American people” because state residents were not motivated to support the troops.
That spawned the Abrams Doctrine, which required Guard units to take an equal role in combat, a doctrine embraced today, Livingston said, adding that the Guard has proved its mettle in Iraq and Afghanistan, and shouldn’t be moved to the sidelines.
“The deeper question is how do we go to war as a nation,” he said. Limiting the Guard’s combat role “doesn’t make sense given the 13 years of war, where we have fought together and done well together.”