National Security
3:53 pm
Tue April 22, 2014

Army Vs. National Guard: Who Gets Those Apache Helicopters?

Originally published on Tue April 22, 2014 6:38 pm

For decades the National Guard has fought hard against the stereotype that it was the place to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, or that it's a place to get college money rather than combat duty.

Guard leaders thought that after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq they had finally earned some respect. So it was a body blow when the Army's top officer, Gen. Ray Odierno, unveiled his plan on Capitol Hill to take all of the National Guard's Apache helicopters and move them to the regular Army.

The move would shift the nearly 200 Apache attack helicopters from the Guard and replace them with about 100 Black Hawks, the less glamorous, less lethal, troop-carrying helicopter.

"For me personally, I'm insulted by it. Most guardsmen that I talk to, they feel insulted," says retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett. He heads the National Guard Association, a lobbying group with a lot of clout on Capitol Hill. "They feel like they are now being told after 12 years of war that somehow they are just not the equal to the active guys."

Budget Cuts Loom

But Army officials say it's not about equality; it's about affordability. The Army must find ways to make ends meet now that the defense budget is coming down.

"The debate is about how to make these cuts in the Army, and in particular how to allocate cuts between the active component and the reserve component," says Todd Harrison with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Harrison says the Army's plan makes sense. Having all the attack helicopters in the active force means they can be ready at a moment's notice for war. Not so with a National Guard pilot.

"It takes a little longer to spin them up and deploy them if you need to," he says.

Defense officials say Guard Apache pilots were given more routine missions during the wars, like convoy escorts. But the Guard says those missions are not necessarily easier. They point to a letter from a Marine commander in Afghanistan, praising Idaho Guard pilots for saving Marine lives when insurgents attacked a convoy.

National Guard troops are under the control of the state governors, unless they're called to war by the president. And Harrison says the governors would be better off with more Black Hawks, which can carry cargo and more than a dozen people.

"I would think a Black Hawk helicopter is going to be far more useful in a natural disaster situation than Apache attack helicopters," he says.

But Gen. Hargett of the National Guard Association says the states already have plenty of Black Hawks, and they made good use of them during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"You know, we filled the skies of New Orleans with Black Hawk helicopters from the Guard," he says. "How many can you put in the sky at one time? How many do you need at one time?"

Hargett dismisses the view that his Guard Apache pilots are not as ready for war.

"Most of our Apache battalions are comparable readiness numbers to the active duty guys," he says.

Now those experienced pilots, Hargett says, will either have to retrain to fly Black Hawks, or leave the Guard. That means the Army will lack a reserve in the event of war.

"We will have no Apache helicopter pilots sitting on the bench to go in the game," he says.

The Guard proposed a compromise. It would transfer 40 percent of its Apache helicopters to the active Army. Army officials rejected it, and some privately say the Guard's position is more about preserving state jobs than combat readiness.

This battle is far from over. President Obama has received a letter opposing the Army plan to remove the Apaches from the Guard. It was signed by all 50 governors.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There is something of a feud going on inside the Army. It centers on a decision to take all Apache attack helicopters from the National Guard and shift them to the regular Army. The Guard says that's an insult to its helicopter pilots who performed well during a decade of war. Army leaders say it's nothing personal; it's about saving money. NPR's Tom Bowman has the story.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: For decades, the National Guard has fought hard against this stereotype: that it was a place to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, that it's a place to get college money rather than combat experience. Even as Guard units deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, that view lingered. The 2007 movie "Delta Farce" told the story of three hapless guardsmen.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "DELTA FARCE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Meet the weekend warriors.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Stand at attention, you miserable piss ants.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: If there was ever a worthless excuse for a soldier, I'd like to meet him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Well, hi there, Sarge. Snap into a Slim Jim.

BOWMAN: Guard leaders thought that after 12 years of war, they had finally earned some respect. So it was a body blow when the Army's top officer, General Ray Odierno, unveiled his plan on Capitol Hill.

GENERAL RAY ODIERNO: In the National Guard, we will take all the Apaches and move it into the active component.

BOWMAN: Take nearly 200 Apache attack helicopters from the Guard and replace them with about 100 Black Hawks, the less glamorous, less lethal, troop-carrying helicopter.

MAJOR GENERAL GUS HARGETT: For me personally, I'm insulted by it. Most guardsmen that I talk to, they feel insulted.

BOWMAN: That's retired Major General Gus Hargett. He heads the National Guard Association, a lobbying group with a lot of clout on Capitol Hill.

HARGETT: They feel like they are now being told after 12 years of war that somehow they are just not the equal to the active guys.

BOWMAN: But Army officials say it's not about equality; it's about affordability. The Army must find ways to make ends meet now with the defense budget coming down. Here's Todd Harrison with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

TODD HARRISON: And so the debate is about how to make these cuts in the Army, and in particular how to allocate cuts between the active component and the reserve component.

BOWMAN: Harrison says the Army's plan makes sense. Having all the attack helicopters in the active force means they can be ready at a moment's notice for war. Not so with a National Guard pilot.

HARRISON: It takes a little longer to spin them up and deploy them if you need to.

BOWMAN: Top defense officials say Guard Apache pilots were given more routine missions, like convoy escort, during the wars. The Guard, for its part, points to a letter from a Marine commander in Afghanistan who praised Idaho Guard pilots for saving Marine lives when insurgents attacked a convoy. Again, General Hargett of the National Guard Association.

HARGETT: Most of our Apache battalions are comparable readiness numbers to the active duty guys.

BOWMAN: Now, those experienced pilots, Hargett says, will either have to retrain to fly Black Hawks or leave the Guard. That means the Army will lack a reserve in the event of war.

HARGETT: We will have no Apache helicopter pilots sitting on the bench to go in the game.

BOWMAN: There's another Guard mission beside combat, and that mission is carried out back home. Todd Harrison says governors would be better off with more Black Hawks which can carry cargo and more than a dozen people.

HARRISON: I would think a Black Hawk helicopter is going to be far more useful in a natural disaster situation than Apache attack helicopters.

BOWMAN: But General Hargett says the states already have plenty of Black Hawks, and they made good use of them during Hurricane Katrina.

HARGETT: You know, we filled the skies of New Orleans with Black Hawk helicopters from the Guard. How many can you put in the sky at one time? How many do you need at one time?

BOWMAN: The Guard's proposed a compromise. It would transfer 40 percent of its Apache helicopters to the active Army. Army officials rejected it. And some privately say the Guard's position is more about preserving state jobs than combat readiness.

This battle is far from over. President Obama has received a letter opposing the Army plan to remove the Apaches from the Guard. It was signed by all 50 governors.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.