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READINESS vs. EXISTENCE U.S. Army National Guard Aviation

Posted 9 years 173 days ago ago by Admin

The next decade will prove a challenging time for the United States and its military. The last decade of war in two countries has set a course where hard and inevitable choices must be made. When wars are ramping up, the U.S. always takes the fight to its enemies. However, when wars are winding down new fights emerge… fights within the military apparatus… internal fights for existence.

As deployments return home, aircraft are retired, and active duty forces shrink, the top brass have to begin shifting assets and answering the age-old question: how do we do more with less while maintaining a high level of readiness? This often turns into a mini turf war between active duty forces and their reserve counterparts. Not that there is anything wrong with it; it’s just a natural conflict created by changing circumstance. Nevertheless, while each side makes their case to ensure their own existence, they still have a job to do.


I was recently embedded with several U.S. Army National Guard Aviation units in the desert of central California. During my week with them, I was able to witness their approach to readiness while they pulled off one of the largest multi-agency air assault exercises ever attempted in the region. I also wanted to get a feel from the Guard units as to how they viewed the Army’s Aviation Restructure Initiative (ARI) in which the regular Army desires to take all 192 of the Guard’s AH-64 Apache Helicopters. Needless to say, there is no shortage of passion and opinions on the subject. They are not all that happy at the prospect. This is their story.


Operation Thunderbolt Tempest

CAMP ROBERTS, Calif. – In an obscure, ramshackle WWII-era building, Lt. Col. David Hall takes the floor in front of approximately 50 Guard helicopter pilots who will be the crews of Boeing AH-64D Apaches, Boeing CH-47 Chinooks, Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks, and Airbus UH-72 Lakotas. Hall himself is not just a helicopter pilot, but also the battalion commander in charge of Operation Thunderbolt Tempest. He is leading an air mission brief that will take two 90-minute sessions to complete.

The first part of the briefing covers such items as the goals of the exercise, weather, terrain, communications, routes, LZs, FARPs (forward arming and refueling points), and contingencies for when things go wrong. This part of the brief is shared by several presenters, all covering their own areas of expertise.

The second part of the briefing, and perhaps the most fascinating, is a complete aircrew rehearsal of the event. This involves every command pilot from each helicopter stepping onto a mock battlefield recreated on the floor of the old building. Using their own two feet, each pilot positions him or herself on the mock battlefield and lines up in groups of six to eight aircraft, called serials. They further position themselves within the serials into their “chalk” position: chalk 1, chalk 2, chalk 3 … and so on.

Once standing on the mock battlefield, each pilot steps up, makes their respective radio calls, then “flies” (walks) the entire route, making not only position reports on the course, but also calling out specified altitudes and airspeeds. From beginning to end, the entire exercise is rehearsed until the script is memorized. Every once in a while, Hall will throw out a random question like, “Serial A, Chalk 2 just had a MGB chip light. What is the contingency plan?”

Go time

The mission is clear: complete an air assault that involves inserting two combat infantry units from the 1/24th and 1/184th Infantry Regiments into an LZ deep in enemy territory. The round-robin route includes several checkpoints that include a troop pickup zone, a drop zone, and a FARP.

With communications aircraft (known as C2s) flying high overhead providing airspace de-confliction and targeting direction, the AH-64 Apaches are the first to head downrange. Their first task is to fly the route in a reconnaissance role. Not only are they looking for hot spots along the route in advance of the 60s and 47s, they are often times flying low and trying to draw fire. Stirring up trouble allows them to engage enemy ground forces and clear the way for the rest of the battalion. With IR cameras, Hellfire missiles, 2.75 mm rockets, and 30 mm machine guns, the Apaches can neutralize most ground threats in very short order.

While the Apaches are making sure the route and LZ are clear, the Black Hawks and Chinooks are at the pick-up zone, hooked up, loaded, and standing by for the word to launch. Once the route and LZ have been cleared, the rest of the battalion gets on the route and flies inbound toward the LZ.  The Apaches remain low-level, strafing the LZ to insure its security. Once the first serial (six to eight helicopters) are on final approach to the LZ, the Apaches pop up to a couple hundred feet and provide cover and protection for the inbound serial. In a span of about seven minutes, three serials made up of 18 Black Hawks and two Chinooks hit the ground, dropping troops and slung vehicles into the LZ.

With the Apaches flying cover and the C2 coordinating overhead, all three serials make it out of the LZ safely and fly a defined return route to the pickup point where they will complete at least two more insertions of troops, vehicles, and equipment. At some point during the evolution, aircraft will make a stop at the FARP in order to fuel and re-arm the aircraft. A typical FARP has the capability of simultaneously servicing two to six aircraft in order to get them in and out as fast and efficiently as possible.

Testing the unit’s metal

Having been deployed to previous conflicts before, and knowing the likelihood of his units being deployed again, Hall knows the only way to ensure his teams are ready for combat is to put them to the test. The primary objective of this drill is to allow the lieutenant colonel to test and assess the actual readiness of his aviation assets should they be sent back into combat. Since National Guard units are not resourced as well as the regular Army, they have to work and train very hard to maintain the readiness that is required of them when the call for combat deployment comes.

With over 25 helicopters from the Utah (1/211th) and California (1/140th) Guard, and over 200 aviation and ground support personnel, this massive air assault drill goes off without a hiccup and is deemed a success. The mission was accomplished, no one got hurt, and everyone returned safely home.


The Fight for Assets

As stated at the top of this story, the last 10 years of conflict has taken its toll on the military, especially in terms of personnel turnover, equipment lost, and financial burden. After a decade of “One Team, One Fight,” the active duty Army is now proposing a course of action to take all Apache helicopters from the National Guard, holding the position that it can do the job better and for less cost. Their plan is known as the Aviation Restructure Initiative (ARI). If approved, some Guard advocates claim that it will cost taxpayers more money in the long run, not less. The regular Army’s position is that the Guard should be equipped, manned, and trained to support domestic operations and only select overseas missions.

Initially this may sound like a good idea, but several overarching questions must be asked: Will stripping combat forces from the National Guard fundamentally shift its charter and morph the Guard into a new role, akin to a homeland defense force? Will the Guard be stripped of its essential role as an operational and strategic asset? Questions like these are important, but there may be an even bigger issue at stake.

Even though Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn is over, and Operation Enduring Freedom is quickly winding down, the world is still an uncertain and sometimes dangerous, place. It took 21 combat aviation brigades (CABs)—both active component (AC) and Guard—to fight the last two conflicts. The ARI reduces the CABs, across the entire Army, to a total of 10. In future conflicts, how could the Army get by with less than half of what it currently possesses? If Apaches are kept in the Guard, it is a very affordable and effective way to keep the total number of CABs at a number adequate enough to support future conflicts, wherever they may arise.

Why does the Army want all 192 Apaches?

The likely answer from the Guard’s perspective is that the Army is acting out of self-preservation. Not only do they want to replace aircraft that have been destroyed, they want to bulk up their aircraft inventory Army-wide.

There are currently 15 Army battalions, eight Guard battalions, and two reserve battalions, and the two reserve battalions are already in the process of losing their aircraft to the Army. An Apache battalion is authorized 24 aircraft per battalion. If the ARI is approved, each Army battalion would gain an additional Apache – a spare, if you will. The Army knows that the next few years will more than likely be fiscally constrained, and the chance of purchasing new Apaches to replace those destroyed is going to be very unlikely, if not impossible. So, their short-term proposal is to “hoard” all Apache helicopters.

Additionally, the Army is retiring the OH-58 Kiowa. All of those Kiowa pilots will need another aircraft to call home, be forced to change their MOS (military occupational specialty) or even be asked to leave the Army.

Potential consequences

What about the potential long-term consequences of the ARI? The loss of an existing trained and ready reserve in the Guard could prove to be a costly mistake. For example, there seems to be a direct correlation between lower accident rates and more experienced aviators and aircraft maintainers. The high turnover and exit rate of active duty soldiers has diminished their ability to develop and maintain aviators and mechanics with 20 or more years of experience.


Continuity in personnel plays a large part in the success of the Guard. The Guard has a proven safety record to back this: they have significantly less aircraft crashed than their AC counterparts. In the past five years, active duty has had approximately 15 Class A accidents related to “pilot error,” meaning the aircraft was a total loss, and/or one or both pilots were killed in the accident. In that same time frame, the Guard and reserves have had only one Class A accident related to “pilot error.” It’s a touchy subject for some, but this data should not be discounted.

Another strength of the Guard is diversity—in experience and in personnel. The Guard is home to aviators from all branches, and many Guard pilots were formerly active duty. If the Army does take Apaches from the Guard, where will all the experience go when aviators leave active duty? As for mission experience, the Guard frequently integrates with other branches of the military, to include Special Forces and Navy Seals, as well as participating in numerous training exercises, from company to brigade level and above. Guard missions, in training and in combat, are no different than active duty. Guard missions encompass everything from armed reconnaissance to air-ground integration to full spectrum, joint operations in austere conditions. Compare the training areas between the Army and the Guard; several Guard units have better access to more diverse ranges and challenging terrain, such as those found in Arizona, Idaho, and Utah.
In a recent press conference, Army Chief of Staff General Odierno said, “To say that the National Guard is cheaper and can replace the active duty force is not true.” During the same conference he indicated that the Guard typically trains 39 days out of the year. However, National Guard aviators and mechanics train much more than that. They train up to 135 days a year—roughly one third of the year—and still cost much less than active duty. This is done by using 72 additional flight training periods, 48 drill periods, and 15 days of annual training. Additionally, Guard aviators receive only a third of the flight pay compared to active duty aviators, even though both have the same annual flight hour requirements. Additionally, the traditional Guard member gets neither an allowance for housing nor TRICARE, the full medical coverage their Army counterparts receive.

It’s more than pilots

The potential loss isn’t just the Guard Apache aviator. The Guard is home to some of the most experienced Apache mechanics and support personnel, some with well over 20 years working on the airframes. Many maintainers are hired on a full-time basis to only maintain Apaches, with no other tasks authorized during their workweek as technicians. Contrast this to active duty maintainers who have multiple distractors that frequently take them off the hangar floor. These distractors have made the active duty become reliant upon civilian contract aircraft maintenance support—a hidden cost the Army doesn’t openly acknowledge.

Is the nation really willing to dismantle all Guard Apache Battalions and throw away one-third of the Apache aviators and maintainers who are the most experienced (and least costly) in the US Army? According to General Odierno, “We go back to the problem of the balance between end strength, readiness, and modernization. I can't get that balance until 2020. That creates six years of vulnerability.”

The Army would actually increase its vulnerability by axing one-third of the most experienced aviators and mechanics. If qualified personnel in the Guard are reduced by a third, it will take years (15 to 20) to train a replacement force for the loss of senior aviators and maintainers. By eliminating all National Guard Apache units, the nation will lose a wealth of experience—experience that is a critical readiness asset.

Congressional action

Recently, House Resolution (H.R.) 3930, originally put forward by South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson, was inserted into the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act). The H.R. called for a halt to this plan for two years and a freeze on reducing the current force structure of the Guard. This will allow time for an independent study so that all facts can be considered and an informed decision made by an independent, unbiased party. On May 21 the House voted overwhelmingly (325 – 98) in favor of the NDAA, which included H.R. 3930.  Since the next stop for the NDAA is the U.S. Senate, it has bought a little breathing room for the Guard. However, rest assured that both sides are hitting the FARP and getting ready for the next internal battle for their own existence. It’s unlikely either side will go down without a good fight.


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