The U.S. Army's top leaders defended their proposal to strip the Army National Guard of its AH-64 Apaches attack helicopters as part of a cost-saving move.
Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said the proposal would help the service avoid some $12 billion in costs -- a significant level of savings in an era of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
"It's about the budget," Odierno said on Thursday during a hearing of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. "The issue is, we can no longer afford to sustain the amount of aircraft that we have."
McHugh agreed, saying, "The money's gone."
Under the plan, the Army would retire the OH-58 Kiowas and use Apaches for the armed scout and reconnaissance mission instead. Because the service lacks money to buy enough of the attack helicopters to do both missions, it would transfer the Guard's entire fleet of 192 Apaches to the active component. In return, the Guard would receive 111 UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters from the active component.
In addition to Apaches, the Guard would also lose 30 OH-58D Kiowa Warriors and as many as 104 UH-72 Lakotas.
The proposed aviation overhaul has stirred controversy among Guard leaders and lawmakers, including Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., a retired colonel in the Arkansas Army National Guard.
Besides creating a "contentious debate" between the active and reserve components, "I just think it's flawed from a sense that we have taken some of our strategic depth out of the Reserve Component that we believe is a very important component in our ability to prosecute missions around the world," Womack said of the idea.
Odierno acknowledged it was a difficult decision. He noted that the active component is losing three aviation brigades, while the reserve component isn't losing any. He also pointed out that Black Hawks flew more than any other combat aircraft during the last decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It is the centerpiece of everything we do," he said. "I need that capability in the Guard."
Womack agreed that the utility helicopter will better serve governors and adjutants general during emergencies and natural disasters, but questioned the wisdom of using the Apache for the scout mission and suggested there was a better way to restructure the aviation fleets.
McHugh said the Army will follow the will of Congress, but warned that maintaining the status quo will force the service to find the $12 billion elsewhere in the budget.
"That's a lot of money," he said. "That's a lot of end-strength. That's a lot of readiness."
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