As Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, the National Guard is an integral part of Army aviation. However, as the experience of one Guard unit shows, integration with the active-duty Army is still sorely lacking. Fortunately, plans are afoot to change that. Herewith is a preview of what’s being planned in the corridors of power and how it will affect you.
Maj. Tom Parker always had one huge regret: He missed the first Gulf War. A West Point graduate and CH-47D Chinook pilot, Parker had served six years in the active-duty Army before leaving the service. He never saw combat. Two months later, the Gulf War kicked off.
As an aviator and a warrior, there are few things worse than missing your nation’s call to duty–especially after you have spent the past decade training for precisely that moment.
"I had huge regrets," Parker recalled. "Every ounce of guilt you could possibly feel fell on my shoulders. I had left just two months before the war started, and everybody in the world that I knew was there except for me."
Parker eventually joined the Illinois Army National Guard, where he continued to fly Chinooks. He joined the Guard because he loved to fly and also because he wanted to be there, at the ready, during a war or contingency operation.
"I kind of feel like it’s my duty or obligation to do something if the need arises," he explained.
As it has for much of the Guard, that need arose after September 11, 2001, when the United States embarked on a worldwide war against organized Islamic terrorism. As President Bush told the nation, "I have a message for our military: Be ready. I have called the armed forces to alert, and there is a reason. The hour is coming when America will act, and you will make us proud."
The United States has acted, and continues to act, militarily in a wide variety of potential trouble spots. The most noticeable, overt action has been in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Guard units have deployed to an unprecedented extent. Indeed, since the 9/11 attack, 197,838 Army National Guard soldiers–56 percent of the Guard–have been mobilized.
As of September 1, a total of 51,755 of these troops are to have been deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and 5,476 were to be deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan). In all, 81,468 Guardsmen are mobilized. Guard and Reserve personnel compose 40 percent of all U.S. forces in Iraq and one-third of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
And while there is much talk in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill about easing the burden on the Guard and Reserve, the reality is that these troops will continue to be heavily utilized for overseas deployments. As Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has observed, the United States "could not fight the war on terrorism without the support of Guardsmen and Reservists."
So it was only a matter of time before Parker and his unit–F Co., 106th Aviation Regiment, Illinois and Iowa Army National Guard–were recalled to active duty. That day arose in late January 2003 in anticipation of the liberation of Iraq.
F Co.’s 17-month, whirlwind deployment illustrates what’s right–and wrong–with Guard aviation. The unit’s experience also helps to explain why the Pentagon is acting now to better integrate the Guard with the active-duty Army.
In short, changes are afoot that will give the Guard new and more modern aircraft, better and more frequent training, and new funding to support these initiatives.
The Army Reserve and National Guard historically have been envisioned as second- and third-line units, said Col. George Gluski, aviation chief for the National Guard Bureau. Now, they suddenly find themselves being employed as first-tier forces. This has required some serious rethinking in the Pentagon–and a serious reallocation of Pentagon resources–as F Co.’s experience well demonstrates.
A Call to Action
As commander of F Co., Parker didn’t have any time for navel gazing. He had less than five days to get himself and his unit ready for a wartime mobilization.
F Co. initially had been tasked to deploy to Kosovo; they now were slated to be part of the invasion of Iraq. Prewar intelligence said they would encounter heavy hostile fire as they entered Iraq from the north via Turkey with the 4th Infantry Div. Yet, just five of F Co.’s 14 Chinooks had seating armor and only four aircraft had countermeasure systems.
Moreover, the unit spent 10 weeks at an Army mobilization site at Ft. Campbell, Ky., but without any of their helicopters, which had been sent to Kuwait via ship. Those were 10 essentially wasted weeks, during which the unit could have been training for war.
Of course, F Co. was not supposed to spend 10 weeks at Ft. Campbell. Instead, they were supposed to deploy quickly to Kuwait, in advance of the invasion. But then Turkey denied the U.S. military a northern point of entry into Iraq and the waiting game began–in more ways than one: The unit was waiting to deploy overseas, and waiting for seating armor and countermeasure systems.
"We were kind of in a Catch-22," Parker said. "We were told, `Whatever equipment you’re missing at the mobilization site, the active-duty guys will get it for you.’ But once we got to the mobilization site, their answer was, `No, your state should have given that to you.’"
Part of the problem, Parker said, was that there was a serious shortage of aircraft survivability equipment. Active-duty units had first priority on what was available.
Fortunately, when F Co. finally did arrive in theater, in April, the threat from small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-fired missiles and man-portable air-defense systems was considered minimal. The unit thus stayed in Kuwait for three months and made daily runs northward into Iraq–even though most of their aircraft still did not have seating armor and countermeasures.
Things began to change in June and July, when F Co. moved permanently into northern Iraq with the 101st Airborne Div. Indeed, four more countermeasure systems were forthcoming at that time. The unit acquired six additional countermeasure systems in October from a departing California National Guard unit.
F Co. continued to fight for survivability equipment and the Army bureaucracy slowly responded to their requests. However, Parker admitted, neither F Co. nor the Army bureaucracy had much of a sense of urgency about the matter. The threat, after all, was still viewed as minimal.
A Wakeup Call
That abruptly changed on November 2, when insurgents shot down an F Co. Chinook, killing 16 soldiers from throughout the service. Among the fatalities was CW4 Bruce Smith, the aircraft commander, co-pilot 1st Lt. Brian Slavenas and Sgt. Paul Fisher, the flight engineer.
"That was our wakeup call," Parker said. "It was pretty clear to us by mid-November that they were using more than RPGs. They were using SAMs [surface to air missiles]."
In fact, the Chinook that was shot down had countermeasures, but for unknown reasons, these failed to work properly.
Parker said he suspects that the countermeasure systems in his unit suffered from old age and lack of use. "They kind of just fell apart on us," he recalled.
An official of BAE Systems, current manufacturer of the AN/ALQ-156 used on the Chinooks, told Rotor & Wing that, "Our understanding is that the AN/ALQ-156 works very well."
In any case, the incident was a devastating blow to F Co., which suffered its first and only wartime fatalities. However, it galvanized the Army leadership to reassess its tactics, techniques and procedures. It also forced the bureaucracy to make aircraft survivability equipment an overriding military priority.
The upshot was "an emphasis" upon making sure that all aircraft had upgraded countermeasure systems. Equally important, prescribed and repetitive flight routes were prohibited, hover operations were banned and Army aviators began to fly at night.
"Up until November, we flew zero night missions," Parker said. "It was viewed as too dangerous. In the desert, you have almost zero visible cues to work off of at night."
Maybe so, but as Parker observed, "If they can’t see you, then they can’t shoot you." So after the November 2 Chinook crash, "We flew predominantly at night."
There was only one problem: There was no way to fly in the desertvat night without night-vision goggles (NVGs). But like most Guard units, F Co. had only a few of its pilots NVG-qualified.
"The majority of our unit had not flown with goggles in probably 10 or 15 years," Parker said. A mini field training program thus was set up to prepare Guard aviators to fly with NVGs.
Seating armor was both quicker and slower in coming than the countermeasure systems. Quicker because the Army began taking orders for new seating armor as early as April 2003; slower because F Co. had to order, individually, each and every component that composed a full seating armor kit.
"We had to place hundreds of orders just to get all the components that we needed," Parker explained.
By Christmas 2003, F Co. finally had all of the seating armor and countermeasure systems that it required–as well as a plentiful supply of spare parts to replenish defective and damaged equipment.
For Parker, the lessons of this ordeal are clear and should apply to the entire National Guard:
First, resource the Guard adequately, on par with the active-duty Army. "We’ve resolved to keep fighting for the best equipment that’s out there," he said. "Whether we can get it or not, we’re going to keep fighting for it." The reason for that is simple, he added: Guard aviation is being employed operationally in the same fashion as the active-duty Army. Thus, the Guard requires the best available equipment. American lives are in the balance, as F Co. tragically discovered last fall.
Second, to the greatest extent possible, train as you fight. "We’re going to try to continue with a lot of the things that we did over there [in Iraq]," Parker said. "The tactically oriented flights, the use of NVGs. Of course, we can’t clip by at 50 ft. over a building. The FAA won’t go for that. But there are things we can do to maintain our tactical proficiency, which we didn’t do when we were just flying around the corn fields of Iowa or Illinois, not worried about getting hit by a missile."
Third, minimize deployment time to what is operationally necessary. For an aviation unit, 10 weeks at a mobilization site without any aircraft is a dead waste of time. For F Co., this delay may have been unavoidable, given the unexpected turn of events in Turkey. But Guard aviation units are supposed to be certified as operationally ready prior to mobilization. Mobilization site training should, therefore, be minimal and geared toward specific operational requirements, Parker said.
"My job as a commander is to prepare my unit for war, and I’m evaluated upon that basis every year," explained Maj. David Wood, commander of G Co., 104th Aviation Regiment of the Pennsylvania and Connecticut Army National Guard. So "I should spend only a minimal amount of time at the mobilization station–and I should not be doing basic Army tasks there. Give me my mission essentials, my desert uniforms and get me to work so that I can home as soon as possible."
Fourth, make deployments predictable. "We went over there thinking six months and it ended up being 14 months," Parker said. "And they kept nickel-and-diming us to death. First it was three more months, then another two–no, one more. We would have been better off going into it expecting the worst."
It appears that the Pentagon has taken these concerns to heart. The Army’s new Rapid Fielding Initiative, for instance, is designed to ensure that deploying Guard units have all of the latest equipment before they are mobilized.
"We’re talking the most modern protective vests with inserts, Kevlar helmets, NVGs and aircraft survivability equipment, right down to individual pocket knives for the soldiers," said Maj. Gen. David P. Rataczak, president of the Adjutants General Assn.
"We didn’t envision, before 9/11, having to use the Guard in such a robust fashion," he noted. "But since 9/11 and the war on terrorism, the Guard has been deploying in an historic fashion. So now the thinking is, `We need these people. We need all these aircraft. They all have to be equipped the same. It’s the same theater, the same war, whether they’re Guard or active-duty.’"
This doesn’t mean that the Guard will have exactly the same equipment as the active-duty Army. Differences will remain. The Guard, for instance, will fly mostly A-model Apaches, while the active-duty Army moves to a predominantly D-model Longbow fleet.
The reason for this is simple: "There’s obviously not enough money to pay for everything that we’d like," Gluski said. However, he added the A-model Apache is a very good and viable go-to-war aircraft that is being employed today by many active-duty Army units in Iraq. It is certainly far superior to the AH-1 Cobra, which the Guard belatedly divested itself of three years ago.
Significantly, the Army is putting its money where its mouth is. This is most dramatically illustrated by the fact that the service canceled Comanche, in large part to upgrade and modernize Guard aviation.
"We must replace the older helicopters in our fleet, especially in the National Guard and Army Reserve," said Army Secretary Les Brownlee when he announced the Comanche cancellation last February. "We must ensure the National Guard and Army Reserve have the capabilities necessary to accomplish the mission they are performing in the war on terror in numerous deployments around the world–especially in Iraq and Afghanistan."
"For the National Guard, the cancellation of Comanche is a very good thing," Rataczak said. "What it did was buy us about 800 modern helicopters. It fixes a lot of things."
Gluski agreed. "The biggest impact for the Guard is really the Comanche cancellation," he said. "It allows the Army to utilize those funds for aviation and specifically to resolve some of the shortages that have plagued us for years."
However, both Rataczak and Gluski are worried that Congress may divert some or most of the estimated $14.6 billion in Comanche savings to programs outside of Army and Guard aviation.
"I know that the commitment is there at the highest levels of the government–from the secretary of defense, the secretary of the army, the army chief of staff and vice chief of staff–to keep that money in Army and Guard aviation," Gluski said. "But $14.6 billion is an awfully tempting pot of money and we all know that Congress can change our priorities if they want."
"Right now, we’re in good shape. The commitment to keep that money is there," Rataczak said. "But as you get into some of these long lead-time acquisitions, it’s at risk. We all know that."
Indeed, the Senate and House defense authorization committees already have expressed serious skepticism about the Army’s requirement for a light utility helicopter. (See "Senate Stymies U.S. Army’s Plans," July 2004, page 11.)
The Army intends to procure 328 light utility helicopters, with 204 to be earmarked to the Guard. Some 144 of these aircraft will be employed by Guard service and support battalions, while 60 will be used by Guard medevac units, Gluski said.
The new light utility helicopter is designed to replace the old Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey, some 260 of which are still in service in the Guard. (According to Gluski, that number will drop to 100 Guard Hueys by the end of this year.) The light utility helicopter also is intended to replace the more spacious and more costly UH-60 Black Hawk for less demanding troop transport missions.
But if the Comanche money stays put and the Army carries through on its plans to upgrade and modernize Guard aviation–and admittedly, these are big ifs–here’s what you can expect:
Apache: The Guard will continue to fly A-model Apaches. However, at least one Guard unit (Arizona) already is making the transition to the D-model Longbow.
Moreover, Lockheed Martin’s Modernized Target Acquisition and Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (M-TADS/PNVS), which is being developed for the AH-64D, also will be added to Guard A-model Apaches. "We’ve been told that will happen in 2011, maybe even earlier," Gluski said.
The new M-TADS/PNVS improves performance and reliability by more than 150 percent and reduces maintenance actions by nearly 60 percent, according to Boeing.
Black Hawk: "We’re short about 100 Black Hawks, but the good news is there’s now a plan to buy the required number of aircraft," Gluski said.
To be precise, the Guard is short 116 UH-60s. However, thanks to the Comanche cancellation, all of these aircraft will be cascaded from the active-duty Army into the Guard by 2011. Both the Guard and active-duty Army will fly a mixed fleet of A- and L-model Black Hawks until M-model UH-60s are available beginning in 2007.
Chinook: Again, because of the Comanche cancellation, the Army will cascade 28 CH-47 Chinooks into the Guard from 2012 to 2020. The Army plans to upgrade 300 of its 432 CH-47Ds to the F-model configuration, and the Guard will receive some of these newer aircraft.
According to Boeing, the modernized CH-47Fs will feature "reduced vibration, improved avionics and more powerful engines to improve mission performance and reduce operation and maintenance costs."
Some Guard units, like G Co., 104th, already have had their Chinooks fitted with the more powerful Honeywell T55-GA-714A engine. That is why G Co. was re-deployed to Afghanistan from Iraq in early May 2003. Afghanistan’s forbidding mountainous environment and climatic extremes made the newer -714-powered Chinook absolutely essential, Wood said.
Another measure of the Army’s increasing reliance on Guard Chinooks is the growing number of state units that are getting these aircraft.
"Two years ago, 14 states had Chinooks," said Boeing executive Bob Richardson. "Today, five more states–Montana, Colorado, Michigan, Ohio and New York–are fielding these aircraft and five additional states–Nebraska, Minnesota, Florida, South Carolina and Maryland–are scheduled to get them."
Armed Reconnaissance: The Army intends to procure 368 armed reconnaissance helicopters to replace its aging OH-58D Kiowa Warriors. At least 30 of these aircraft will be earmarked to the National Guard–specifically the 4th Sqdn., 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment of the Tennessee Army National Guard, Gluski said.
"They don’t build 300 helicopters in a day. It will take some time," Gluski said. "But we’ll be getting some of those aircraft."
As for Parker, he no longer feels any pangs of regret for having missed the Gulf War 13 years ago. "Any time there’s a conflict and you don’t get to go," he explained, "it’s like going to football practice, but not getting to play in the game. We finally had an opportunity to put our training to use. And I don’t know if it’s a sense of satisfaction [that I feel], but there’s a sense that what I’ve been doing for 20 years really has been worth it. We finally contributed and helped out. We did our part."