The Apache Question: Tactical Draw, Strategic Victory

The news has arrived that the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will cast a definitive measure on the now year-old question of what will be done with the National Guard’s fleet of AH-64 Apache Helicopter Gunships that are scheduled by the DoD to be transferred into the Active services. As reported today in DefenseNews:

“The bill bars the transfer of the Apaches in 2015, allowing as many as 48 aircraft to be moved the following year. In effect, the language allows the Army to begin its Aviation Restructuring Initiative (ARI)in fiscal 2016 but leaves a decision on its completion to the next Congress…”

In effect, nothing will be done until 2016.

The sparring over this issue has been the focus of much of the coverage of the historically-reoccurring spat between the National Guard and the “Big Army” when it comes to budget reduction and who should have to yield men and capability. The former argues that it is the financially sounder option (a Guardsmen is cheaper to maintain in pure dollar terms because his training is part-time and he lives at home when not mobilized), while the latter argues that sacrificing the readiness of the full-time professional soldier is not worth the savings. With the pressure of the last decade of rotations through Iraq and Afghanistan leading to regular deployments of both Guard and Army (theoretically one and the same in the field), the Guard argues it has proven effectiveness while costing considerably less in the long term. Yet, with downsizing now aimed at cutting redundancies to create the “lean and mean” expeditionary force envisioned by the 2014 QDR, the Pentagon has argued that it makes sense to place the offensive combat-centric Apache into Army hands, while the Guard will, in exchange, receive the multi-role Blackhawk, more capable in the Guard’s dual role as both force multipliers and in homeland defense/disaster relief.

The compromise the 2015 NDAA presents is not really a compromise, but a delay. Strategically, if the Obama Administration is indeed planning to conduct five major military operations (maybe six according to CSIS), then the cuts may (with help from a Republican-dominated Congress) be reversed or further delayed, which might relieve the immediate necessity. Yet, the Administration is treading lightly in all these operations, and the cuts have taken on the tone of a fait accomplis, even with the delay of several program and funding decisions until 2016 in the NDAA. Politically this saves the new Congress having to make serious decisions this year and enables the military to have breathing space to see how things pan out in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Iran, Afghanistan, and Yemen, but it also solves nothing (a not unusual result in Washington and its duct-tape-on-the-dam course of late).

It appears to be a tactical draw at least for the moment, but on a strategic level, the Guard is pulling a win, or at least running a pattern that has been successful in the past. The last ten years have seen something of a renaissance for the National Guard, even if under the most unfortunate of circumstances. The War on Terror, the suddenly prescient face of terrorism and homeland disaster, the strains on manpower throughout the Army, and the shortfalls in equipment and personnel that were exposed in Katrina and other natural disasters have got the Guard’s star rising. After fifty years as a “strategic reserve” using the Army hand-me-downs, the National Guard got to get in line for new gear and a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Guard readiness has notably improved as a result of a series of Commissions following Katrina headed by Arnold L. Punaro, going from an abysmal 40% of required gear to almost 90% from 2006 to 2012.

Understandably, budget cuts make everyone nervous, but the Guard particularly. The National Guard Bureau and many Guardsmen remember all too clearly the difficulties they had getting ready for war after being treated as the third and fourth tiers of national defense. They see the gains the institution has made from being a part of the “Total Force”, and now, with a shrinking All-Volunteer Force, it is unlikely that Guardsmen will be spared the share of any major operation. Thus the Guard will not surrender its Apaches for more than simple distress among its pilots and sentimentality: this is part of strategy to keep from dropping back into the second-rate status. The Guard that doesn’t fight is the Guard that ultimately gets the shortest straw, and the Apaches represent an attack capability par excellence. To lose the Apache would, to hear some tell it, represent the “thin end of the wedge” to quote a respected British statesman, leading inexorably back to vintage and rust as well as the further dismantling of Guard Brigade Combat Teams, which means fewer jobs in rural areas where Guardsmen are statistically more likely to hail from.

Yet, the Guard has an ace up its sleeve: it plays well with politicians. The National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) and the State Governors (who command their Guardsmen in domestic crisis) have a powerful voice in local politics and on Capitol Hill. Congress does not tend to forget this, and historically the two groups have fended off the worst of the blows to the National Guard through Congressional shield and sanction (and have kept alive the somewhat questionable distinction between the Army  and Air National Guard and Army and Air Force Reserve). Both by pushing the Punaro Commission and 2013’s Commission on the Structure of the Air Force the Governors and NGAUS have managed to both build up the Guard and protect the Air National Guard from cuts and amalgamations. The 2013 Commission overwhelmingly acquitted the Air National Guard and said the cost-savings were considerable enough to urge for a system which increasingly blends Active and Reservist positions (a buzzword also very much in evidence around the Army National Guard as well).

Now, the 2015 NDAA has created space for a similar Commission on the Structure of the Army, and this may keep the Guard from losing its Apaches or taking the 20,000 cut in service personnel promised in the 2014 QDR. It is a strategic victory in the sense that it has delayed the issue and let the Guard sell on its cost-savings in an era when budgetary-thinking has been driving some portion of national security decision-making. While an extremely good counterpoint to the whole concept of the Commission has been made FG Hoffman writing for the Council for Foreign Relations, I would argue that we can assume that budgetary calculations based on a limited understanding of how to translate overall “readiness” into dollar value will ultimately find for the Guard. The metrics, at least as currently presented by each side, are inconsistent, as a recent study by Stephanie Kostro at CSIS noted. Yet, in the current budget climate, it will be hard to deny costs in terms of how they will look in a ledger. This is at least in-keeping with the historical trends, though I admit that the outcome for the Army Guard might be less clear, given that, at least as understood by the literature, the Air National Guard traditionally has worked better as an adjunct to the Air Force than the Army Guard does to the Army.  Likewise, one sometimes reads the more conciliatory tone taken by the Chiefs of the National Guard Bureau, including Gen. Grass’ earlier acceptance of the planned transfer, and wonder whether the rhetoric from Congress, NGAUS, and the States is not occasionally overtaking the actual business of national defense, which historically has relied on good Guard-Army leadership relations even if, institutionally, the two seem to be at each other’s throats.

Though Punaro has remarked that one cannot sacrifice the rapidly-deployable flexibility of full-time formations for purely financial reasons, the current cut of the budgetary jib will find it hard to ignore the up-front costs of an Active force in comparison to the Reserve.  It may well be that such budgetary considerations may fall out of importance should the Federal Government as a whole choose to adopt a war stance and deflect the financial blows pending from a decade of inflated military spending.  However, with a Presidential election pending, such dramatic reversal seems unlikely, and I believe the Guard’s Apaches will fly again.

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