MORRISVILLE, N.C. — Apache Longbow helicopters are lithe, deadly birds. With the kind of training they do out of their headquarters near Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the citizen-soldiers in the North Carolina National Guard’s 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion can swoop in just above the trees, dive on a target and fire one of three kinds of ammunition with almost no warning.
So skilled is the battalion, part of the 130th Aviation Regiment, that it has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11 without losing a single Apache.
It doesn’t want to lose them now.
But it could, under an aviation restructuring plan by the Army that would take all the National Guard’s Apaches, just under 200 aircraft from eight attack battalions across the country, including those of the 1-130th at Morrisville. The Army says it needs the helicopters so it can stop using the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, which it has been updating since the Vietnam War. And in a time of severe budget constraints, taking Apaches from the Guard is the least costly option.
The Army also has said it would take some of the Guard’s UH-72 Lakota helicopters to use in training. The N.C. Guard has four Lakotas based at Morrisville.
In return, the Army would give the National Guard a smaller number of UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters.
The implications of the proposal go beyond the appearance of an uneven horse trade. While Guard leaders say they understand the Army’s budget frustrations, they say the grab for their war-fighting machinery suggests that as the U.S. ramps down its military involvement around the world, the active-duty forces may be trying to relegate the reserves to cleaning up after hurricanes and fighting forest fires.
That would be a reversal of the work that has been done to make the National Guard and reserves into a force that, with a few months lead time, can be used interchangeably with active-duty units, as has happened frequently during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To achieve that, Guard and reserve forces have acquired the same equipment, trained to the same standards and served on deployments of the same length as their active-duty counterparts, most of them at part-time pay while working regular full-time jobs.
Some military analysts have said that having a well-trained, combat-ready reserve force kept the country from having to re-institute a draft. At times during the post-9/11 conflicts, the Guard has made up 50 percent of deployed troops.
“The National Guard right now is the best-led and the best-trained it has ever been,” said Col. Brian Pierce, commander of the 449th Theater Aviation Brigade, which oversees the 1-130th. “In my opinion, there is no difference between the two organizations now.
“But if we don’t look like them, and we don’t have the same capability as the active-duty component, how are we going to function as that strategic depth and that combat reserve?”
It’s not clear what would happen to the Guard’s Apache attack battalions if the Army’s plan is carried out, which would only happen if is incorporated into the federal budget. Some members might be transferred to other units, and a few might enter or return to the active-duty force.
There are more than 400 soldiers in the 1-130th, about 150 of them full-time Guard employees. Members of the unit live in the Triangle and across North Carolina, and some in neighboring states.
Many are former active-duty service members, and others have served only in the Guard.
Most spend more time at the training and flight facility at RDU in Morrisville than they get paid for, taking courses, putting in time on the flight simulator and getting flight experience in the Apaches.
The helicopters come and go from the facility nearly every night, green-brown birds lifting off the ramp with their two-man crews. They head off in different directions, toward training sites in Butner, Charlotte, Fort Bragg or the Uwharrie Mountains, to practice low-level maneuvers and learn what to do if an engine gets struck by ground fire and fails.
It’s more of a challenge than flying a Blackhawk, said Chief Warrant Officer Christopher Wilson, who served in the Air Force and came to the 1-130th to fly Apaches.
“It’s not even comparable,” he said last week, before boarding an Apache to do an annual evaluation on one of the pilots in the unit. “This is one of the most sophisticated and advanced attack helicopters in the world. Flying this air frame is not like anything else.”
At 45, Wilson has served in the Guard for 20 years, and deployed with this unit in the first Gulf War, as well as to Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s not the only member of the battalion to have done so.
“We’re just going to squander that experience?” said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association in Washington. “These are some of the most experienced pilots and maintainers in the Army. Basically, we’re going to say to them, ‘Get out, or we’re going to have to retrain you in something else.’ Where is the savings there?”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, said that while pilots and maintenance crews need to train on the aircraft they will fly in combat, communications specialists, logisticians and others could train on Blackhawks or other helicopters and transfer those skills in a combat setting.
The Guard also could use Blackhawks in its domestic duties and in humanitarian missions.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., has proposed a bill that would forestall the shifting of helicopters and establish a commission to look at the future structure of the Army, a move Guard leaders support as both forces determine how best to reduce their numbers in coming years. The Guard would like the Army’s aviation restructuring to be postponed until a commission can look at the issues.
“They don’t want to be in a service that isn’t in the fight,” Goheen said. “Ours is a force full of people who want to be on their feet, with a rucksack on their back, doing things, getting their hands dirty. If the nation goes to war, they want to contribute. It’s not a team you can put on the bench, and I think that’s the fear.”