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Texas Guard may see its copters fly away

U.S. Army AH-64 Apache Longbows pilots from the 1-135th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., prepare March 27, 2013, for their deployment to Afghanistan. The Apaches have been battlefield-tested for about 10 years.

HOUSTON — On a cool, sunny afternoon last week, Capt. Joseph Trevino and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dustin Mortenson dipped their Apache Longbow helicopter over bogs northeast of the Houston Ship Channel, practicing close-air support maneuvers that aim to save GIs on the ground.

Their attack chopper and a second Apache buzzed low over treetops at the Wallisville Tactical Training Area in a routine training formation from their base at Ellington Field.

But this training routine soon could be upended.

The shrinking federal budget is threatening the National Guard's Apache units in Texas and nine other states, where Army leaders have floated a plan to move the Apache Longbows, the world's most advanced attack helicopters, and Lakota light-utility helicopters from the Guard to active-duty forces.

Texas Guard soldiers and top officials say the plan, pegged for the 2015 federal budget starting this October, is hasty and ill-conceived, and will drive veteran pilots out of the Guard, ultimately weakening the nation's defense.

“I don't see what the point of all this is. Well, I know what the point is, I just don't agree with it,” Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kevin Purtee said. “It's a resource grab on the part of the active component.”

A group of National Guard commanders briefed on the reorganization proposal in November learned that 192 Apaches, 105 Lakotas and some C-12 fixed-wing aircraft would be pulled into the active-duty Army.

Under the plan, a few dozen Kiowa scout helicopters still in the Army's inventory would be retired, while Guard units nationwide would receive 111 older-model Black Hawks.

The Lakotas would move to the Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala., where they're envisioned for use as training aircraft.

Facing a drawdown of 80,000 active-duty troops and a shrinking pool of funds for weapons modernization, the Army will eliminate the Kiowa and 15 job specialties that support it rather than spend $10 billion to upgrade the aircraft.

In Texas, 183 pilots, mechanics and armament specialists are assigned to 16 Apache Longbows at Ellington Field near NASA. Six Lakotas now at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport also would leave the Texas Guard.

It wasn't clear how many pilots and air crew are assigned to those helicopters, but one of four Guard aviation facilities in Texas could be closed.

The unit in San Antonio, Martindale Army Airfield, likely is safe because it's on state property.

“When something happens on short notice that has such long-reaching effects, it does alarm me, especially when we weren't consulted. We were simply briefed on what was going to happen,” said the Texas Guard's adjutant general, Air Force Maj. Gen. John Nichols. “I'm worried about the long-term effects, not just for the National Guard but for the nation. What's this going to do to us in the long run?”

Only a few years ago, the Army wanted 15 combat aviation brigades. But Maj. Gen. Kevin Mangum, commander of the Fort Rucker aviation center, last week said that number could go as low as 10.

“People don't like that word 'lean,'” Mangum told a group Tuesday at the Association of the United States Army Aviation Symposium in Arlington, Va. “I don't either, but there won't be any fat in this Army.”

Breach of faith

Troops at Ellington Field fumed over what they saw a breach of faith. They worried that the loss of Apaches and the Lakotas, flown along the Texas border, will be followed by threats to other units, some that not only go to war but also save lives at home.

The fear is grounded in the suspicion that the Army will snatch up other Guard missions.

Texas, which has two combat brigade teams, likely will lose one as the cash-strapped Army phases some out. Philip Lindner, executive director of the National Guard Association of Texas, said some engineer units also could disappear.

“Engineers are a very, very powerful tool in the hands of the governor,” he said. “They have equipment and experience in ... dealing with building bridges, restoring culverts, anything. ...”

Texas Guard leaders at Camp Mabry in Austin and officials elsewhere around the country are mounting a counterattack in hopes of convincing Congress to slow the plan.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, said he co-signed a letter last month urging Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to preserve the Guard's force structure.

“I believe that relying on a budget proposal with extensive cuts to the Guard wouldn't present the most cost-effective solution, especially within the context of a long-term military strategy,” he said.

Many of those in the ranks believe that, after having fought for years in Iraq and Afghanistan and sometimes saving their active-duty brethren, they're getting a kick in the pants rather than a pat on the back.

“We're not just being pushed back to the bullpen, we're being pushed back to the locker room,” said Purtee, a 32-year veteran who earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for saving a soldier in 2007 in Iraq.

“It's a slap in the face and shutting the door on you,” said Ellington Field's 149th Aviation Regiment commander, Lt. Col. Derreck Hryhorchuk of Houston.

Trained for war

They also are furious with Army's chief of staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno, who said in a Jan. 7 speech at the National Press Club that Guard members train 39 days a year. The remark echoed a past comment in which he likened the Guard to a football team that practiced once a month.

The Texas Guard's Col. James Kenyon called it a mischaracterization of the way his organization trains its troops. He said Guard members mustered one weekend of training a month in the 1980s, and 15 days in the summer, but no more.

They now spend the same amount of time in schools as active-duty troops, and part-time aviators fly the same number of hours as their full-time counterparts, he said, and do it on afternoons, evenings, weekends and days off from civilian jobs.

“I believe it's a fallacy,” said Kenyon, the Texas Guard's chief of staff for domestic operations, noting the work adds up to 90 to 100 training days a year. “We're not 365 days a year, 24 hours a day like the active duty is, but we're definitely way above the 39 days.”

Poorly equipped and trained during the Cold War, the Guard was a strategic reserve to be used well after a major conflict had begun. But since 9/11, Guard members have emerged as equals among war fighters.

In the past dozen years, the Texas Guard has sent 33,203 troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beyond the pride Texans take in having gone to war, they argue that the Guard does the same missions at far less cost than an active-duty force, which receives an array of services ranging from housing allowances and child care to bonuses and retirement packages.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Darren Owens of Bryan said the Guard maintains capability at the least cost, and he noted the Pentagon has invested heavily in training for Guard members. He says moving Apaches could spark a pilot drain.

“It's either you're in or you're out. And so there's no place for them to go and there's no surge capability when you really need to expand,” said Owens, who helped craft the idea of National Guard agricultural development teams that operated in Afghanistan. One unit was from Texas.

Nichols, the Texas Guard commander, also argues that part-time troops are a bargain and ought to pick up an even larger share of missions.

“When asked why does a Guard unit need an Apache ... I ask, why don't we have some more Apaches in the Reserves because we can keep them running, we don't fly them as much, we're highly experienced and we're a group that can be called on,” said Nichols, 57, of Spring Branch. “We've always answered the call.”

But Andrew Krepinevich Jr., director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, thinks the shift from the Guard to the active duty makes sense because “now that the war is winding down, the Black Hawks will better prepare them to support their states' governors.”

Guard members insist Apaches belong as much to them as the active duty. They see the Guard as a refuge for GIs worn out by the active-duty routine of train-ups and deployments and moves to a new post every few years.

Future on hold

Gunship pilots Trevino and Mortenson, who flew last week's training mission, both are full-time pilots who have 5,300 hours in the air and five deployments between them.

Mortenson, 29, of Houston has a wife and two children. He wonders if the Longbow regiment is here to stay, and he isn't alone.

“I think Mr. Mortenson said it earlier,” said Trevino, 34, of Houston. “Everybody's just kind of bewildered, wondering what's going to happen.”

Hryhorchuk, the regiment's commander, has seen this before. He was around when the Army replaced its Cobra helicopter with the Apache in the early 1990s.

Things seemed settled nearly two years ago when the Army spent $455 million to deliver the Longbows. But suddenly the investment, and the regiment's future, are on standby.

“The last thing you want to do is not have a mission,” Hryhorchuk said. “When you don't have a mission, you don't have a future.”

sigc@express-news.net

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