The future looks a little brighter for the Apache attack helicopters flown by the Arizona Army National Guard at the sprawling Silverbell Army Heliport in Marana.
A recent report of the National Commission on the Future of the Army has recommended against a controversial plan to remove all 192 of the AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from the Guard and place them in active-duty Army aviation units, in exchange for UH-60 Blackhawk armed utility helicopters for the Guard.
That swap — part of the Army’s Aviation Restructuring Initiative — would curtail Guard combat operations, as well as deal an economic blow to communities that host Guard Apache operations.
Congress required the Army to study the issue last year, but some cuts to Guard Apache units already have been made.
In late January, the Commission on the Future of the Army came out with its report, which recommends that the Army keep four of the six Apache battalions in the Guard, albeit at a strength of just 18 aircraft per battalion instead of 24.
The report found that the aviation restructuring plan would hold down costs while keeping an adequate Apache wartime fleet. But it “results in a lack of strategic depth, providing for no wartime surge capability in the Army National Guard.”
Army officials say they will analyze the report but made no comment.
The report was good news to critics of the Guard Apache swap, including Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael T. McGuire, who heads the Arizona National Guard as adjutant general.
“My argument all along has been that the folly of ARI is the argument that you can’t count on a part-time soldier to meet these complex warfighting requirements,” McGuire said in an interview last week in Marana. “I would argue that warfighting and the movement of soldiers forward are no more complex than it was during World War II, and three-quarters of the force was called from the national Guard to fight and win the nation’s wars.”
He noted that the 1st Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment — an Apache unit known as the Desert Hawks — was deployed once en masse and three times in parts since 9/11. At one point the Arizona battalion and another Guard Apache battalion from Utah were the only attack helicopters available in Afghanistan.
Beyond that, McGuire said, the nation and Arizona need the Guard to keep a ready reserve of trained troops.
“If the Army needs Apaches, they always need some strategic depth, and the Guard to me has been the fabric that keeps us bound as a community and society, and as states and a nation,” he said. “It’s hard to keep an all-volunteer force engaged, but the Guard is the one thing that traditionally allowed us to have that surge capacity.”
Keeping Apaches in the Guard also helps retain trained aviators who might otherwise leave the military entirely when they separate from active duty, McGuire said.
McGuire said the Army gets its money’s worth and then some from the Guard Apache units.
He noted that the 1-285th has 20 Apaches and more than 400 trained soldiers, with only a quarter of those on base every weekday. The rest serve one weekend per month and two weeks per year.
The loss of the 1-285th in an Apaches swap would be a multi-million-dollar hit to the Tucson area’s economy.
According to the Arizona National Guard, that operation directly contributes more than $15 million to the local economy annually, including $7.5 in pay spent locally and $7.8 million in tax revenues, support contracts and private purchases.
The Southern Arizona Defense Alliance, a business-backed group, has worked with local and federal officials to save military assets, including the Apache operations in Marana.
Those supporters breathed a sigh of relief when the recently proposed Pentagon budget stretched out the planned retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support jet — a mainstay of Davis-Monthan — and dropped the planned mothballing of half of the 14-plane fleet of EC-130 Compass Call electronic jamming planes, which are based solely at D-M.
Ron Shoopman, a retired Air Force brigadier general and president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, said that if Apache operations were downsized, Arizona would have a good argument to keep some operations here because of the flying weather and access to live-fire ranges including the massive Barry M. Goldwater Range.
“I think we can make a good case,” said Shoopman, former commander of the Arizona Air National Guard 162nd Wing at Tucson International Airport and a founding member of Southern Arizona Defense Alliance.
“There’s no place better for those helicopters to be training, especially where they’re doing the international training,” he said.
The 1-285th and its Apaches are just one part of operations at the Silverbell Army Heliport at Pinal Airpark.
The base also hosts the Western Army National Guard Aviation Training Site, or WAATS, where Army aviators train on UH-72 Lakota helicopters and UH-60 Blackhawks.
The heliport is also home to Peace Vanguard, a program to train Apache helicopter pilots and maintainers from the Republic of Singapore, which typically has eight helicopters.
There are concerns that if the Apaches were taken from the Marana base, it could affect the Singapore training program, which draws expertise at times from the 1-285th.
The heliport also has extensive helicopter maintenance facilities which can perform most maintenance short of depot-level major repairs and overhauls, McGuire noted.
And though it doesn’t affect the maintenance regimen, all of the Apaches on base – and worldwide — are made about 50 miles away at Boeing’s plant in Mesa.
“The production facility for the entirety of the Apache in the world is in Mesa, so this capability has got a tie to Arizona as well,” McGuire said.