Members of Congress questioned U.S. Army leaders on Thursday about their budget plans to cut deep into the service's aviation assets to pay for near-term readiness.
Acting Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testified at a hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on the service's proposed fiscal 2017 budget request.
Lawmakers were concerned about the Army's plans to address recommendations that came out of the recently published National Commission on the Future of the Army report.
The report, ordered by Congress, features 63 recommendations on key areas such as modernization and investment, force structure and end-strength.
Both Murphy and Milley told lawmakers that the service is reviewing the recommendations and intend to move forward with about 50 of them.
"We are working through this line by line to make sure we look at those commission recommendations," Murphy said, adding that the Army plans to report back to Congress in about five weeks to discuss the Army's plans to deal with the recommendations.
Rep. Steve Womack, R-Arkansas, asked Army leaders to explain why some of the recommendations have been placed on the service's unfunded list of priorities.
"The aviation initiatives that are being recommended, we think are sound and solid and make strategic sense and operational sense, but they are very expensive to execute, so we will be hard-pressed to execute those initiatives in full without additional money," Milley said.
The commission report recommends keeping 11 combat aviation brigades and retaining a forward-stationed aviation brigade in Korea.
Milley also said "there are couple of them that are not worthy of further pursuit."
He said, "One of them is the deactivation of an infantry brigade combat team as a means of paying for aviation; I don't think that is a good trade-off. I think it is a bad trade-off."
When it comes to force structure, infantry brigades are a key part of the Army's "foxhole strength," Milley said.
"Your infantry, your armor, your combat aviation, combat engineers, Special Forces -- these are the units that are out there closing with and destroying the enemy … that is the last capability that I want to give up," he said.
The hearing's tone got slightly tenser when Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Kentucky, arrived.
The chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee, Rogers expressed concern over the Army's plans to cut another combat aviation brigade over the next three years leaving service with "just 10 CABs in the active force."
Rogers pointed out that the first CAB eliminated was in his home state of Kentucky last year the Army deactivated the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell.
"The president's budget claims to prioritize the modernization of the Army's helicopter fleet yet opts to cut the aviation procurement account by 35 percent," he said. "It is difficult to understand why aviation has been so heavily targeted."
Murphy told Rogers the Army had to make difficult decision with this budget.
"I left this committee and this congress five years ago, and when I left five years ago the budget for the Army was $243 million dollars," he said. "We are asking right now for a base budget of $125.1 billion dollars.
"Aviation is our most expensive asset … we have asked in this budget for $3.6 billion dollars for modernization. We wish we could make more investments in aviation."
Rogers was not easily swayed and continued to make his displeasure about aviation cuts known.
"You don't really think we are going to go along with these cuts to Army aviation by 35 percent?" he asked.
Milley said it all comes down to money.
"Would we like what the commission wants to do? Roger that. We'd love to … but they don't come with a checkbook," the general said.
Aviation is a critical component to the Army, but infantry and armored units are in equally high demand by combatant commanders, he said.
"I love helicopters; I have been in a lot of firefights over the years and my first call is to get an attack helicopter, Milley said. I love Air Force Aviation. I love fixed wing. I love that stuff. I am and infantryman by trade and a special operator and there is nothing more valuable to us on the ground than something that flies in the air and there is nothing more lethal to the enemy.
"But at the same time, wars are won on the ground, so we have to maintain our infantry and our armor," he said.
Milley said he is opened to discuss the issue, but said proposed budget strikes the right balance between readiness and modernization.
"So you are not going to listen to the recommendations?" Rogers asked.
"We are listening to the recommendations, very closely," Milley said. "We want to execute some of them, but they came with no money. There is no money associated with them. If someone says ‘if you do these recommendations, here is the money to execute them,' then that is great."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.