Fort Bragg's Kiowa helicopters will be the last in the Army.
Col. Michael Musiol, commander of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, said the OH-58s assigned to the brigade's 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment would remain in service for at least two more years.
The squadron will be the last Kiowa unit to inactivate under an Army plan that eliminates the small helicopters known for providing close support to ground troops. The squadron is set to be inactivated in 2017 or 2018, Musiol said.
The delay, in part, is so the Army can develop a "bridging strategy" to replace the capabilities the Kiowa provide the Global Response Force. The 82nd Airborne Division is the best-known part of that force, which has a mission to deploy on short notice anywhere in the world for combat or humanitarian operations.
The Kiowa is ideal for that mission, Musiol said, because it can be packed into a C-130 cargo plane and, upon landing, be ready to fly and provide support to ground troops in 30 minutes.
The 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade's other helicopters - the AH-64 Apache, UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook - take longer to assemble and arm.
Some of the duties now assigned to the Kiowa will be replaced by the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, an unmanned aerial system the 82nd Airborne will field in the next two years, Musiol said.
But the Gray Eagle can't completely replace the Kiowa, he said.
"It's a critical part of the GRF and it's going to go away," Musiol said. "We have to determine the best way to support without it. It'll be a challenge."
The Army is scrapping the Kiowa as part of a larger Department of Defense plan that would involve using Apaches and unmanned vehicles in the traditional Kiowa role. The plan is aimed at reducing the number of airframes in the Army inventory while also reducing costs.
The last class of Kiowa pilots is scheduled to graduate flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, on Thursday.
The plan is controversial, with supporters of the Kiowa and some National Guard leaders protesting, the latter because the Army plan would involve taking some Apaches from the Guard and transferring them to active duty. In return, the Army would turn over Black Hawk helicopters to the Guard.
The plan is already underway.
In August, the 4th Attack Reconnaissance Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment was inactivated at Watkins Field on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington. It was the first Kiowa squadron to be shut down as part of the restructuring.
© 2014 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.) Distributed by MCT Information Services.