FORT RUCKER, Ala. - The Army has lost an initial Senate skirmish over a hotly disputed plan to take Apache attack helicopters away from National Guard units in a budget-cutting move that has infuriated governors and state military leaders.
The proposal, which would transfer dozens of the sleek Apache combat aircraft to active-duty units and give larger, multiuse Black Hawk helicopters to the Guard, has gotten high-level support at the Pentagon, including a visit to the Army's aviation center at Fort Rucker last week by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
But the war-fighting arguments and billions of dollars in cost savings haven't been enough to overcome lawmakers' staunch support for their state units and their view that after 13 years of war, active-duty and Guard battalions must be interchangeable. Guard units deployed and fought in the Apaches in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they don't want to give up their flashier ride in exchange for the Black Hawk, which is the military's dependable workhorse.
Military leaders argue that Black Hawks are more useful for the Guard units, which can use them for medical evacuations and other emergencies and disaster relief in their states.
"To me, it's very clear, it's very logical, it's very common sense," said Brig. Gen Mike Lundy, commander of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker. "Politics are not always logical or common sense."
Speaking to reporters traveling with Hagel to Fort Rucker, Lundy said the steep budget cuts required by Congress have forced the Army to restructure its aviation program and eliminate its oldest helicopters, including more than 300 Vietnam-era Kiowa Warriors, that are expensive to maintain and fly. The budget cuts will take about $3 billion a year from the Army's acquisition and modernization budget and slash training funds by about 40 percent.
Lined up across the lawn in front of the aviation center headquarters were some of the Army's war-worn helicopters. And as Hagel walked from one to the next, he peppered military leaders with questions about the age and cost of the single-engine Creek and the Kiowa.
The Vietnam veteran told soldiers at a gathering later that he recalled when "helicopters would take us into remote areas and jungles where we couldn't get into, and the helicopter would hover about 4 to 6 feet off the ground, and we would jump out."
He said the military has to be smarter about how it trains and equips the force, and cutting the number of helicopter models used by the Army from seven to four and restructuring the force will help the Guard and the active-duty force.
The restructuring plan would reduce the number of active Army aviation brigades from 13 to 10 and cut about 800 helicopters from the fleet. In 2016, the Army would begin to transfer about 100 Apaches to the Army brigades, and almost 160 Black Hawks would be sent from active units to the Guard and Reserve.
The exchange, Lundy said, will make training cheaper and give the Army more readily available Apache battalions. He said it takes six Guard battalions to cover the number of deployments that two active-duty battalions can cover, largely due to restrictions on how often Guard members can be tapped for duty.
He said it costs up to $700 million to equip an Apache battalion and takes longer to get a Guard unit ready for duty. As a result, he said, the Army would end up with Guard battalions "that are three times more expensive in people and money, and they're at a lower readiness level."
Those arguments, however, don't convince Guard leaders or lawmakers.
The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee on Tuesday approved with no debate a 2015 spending bill that lets the Guard keep the Apaches and specifically opposes the helicopter transfer.
The subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said simply, "We keep them in the Guard."
Retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association of the U.S., said Congress recognizes the benefit of having active-duty and reserve soldiers that form one total force.
After a decade of war, officials have argued that the Guard and Reserve must look like and complement the active force. Reserve leaders note that their forces cost less than full-time soldiers.
"I think we're making our case, I think Congress supports the total force," said Hargett, a former Tennessee adjutant general. "We talk to Congress every day about this very subject and we will continue to talk about the experience of our pilots."
He said many of the Guard pilots are former active-duty soldiers and have as many or more flying hours as those in the active Army units.
Hargett also rejected the idea that the Guard should take the Black Hawks because they are more useful in state disasters, noting that the Guard has a lot of units and equipment — including tanks — that aren't routinely used in state missions.
"It's not about what the states need, it's about what the country needs" he said. "Is there a need for a howitzer in the Guard? If you're making the case that it's what the governor needs, we'd be out of the tank business."