Army Aviation to Undergo a Refresh UPDATE: Shot Down By the Senate

It looks like the US Army aviation might be going through a pretty big transition in the coming years.

The DoD's fiscal 2015 budget will cause a big rearrangement of the Army's rotary-wing aviation units. First, all 368 OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopters (338 in the active Army, 30 in the National Guard) are going to be removed from service, in an attempt to reduce the number of different aircraft types in service. To fill this scout role in the active-duty Army, the Army National Guard and Army Reserve will transfer all their Apache attack helicopters to the active-duty Army. The Army will then provide the National Guard and Reserve units with UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. The Blackhawks will allow the Guard and Reserve units to function much quicker and more effectively in homeland defense and disaster response missions.

This plan is not without controversy, however. The Apache helicopter costs about 50% more to operate than the OH-58, and requires more maintenance over its lifetime. A recent study actually showed that operating the AH-64 in the scout role in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of the OH-58 would have cost an additional $4 billion.

Proponents, however, point out that getting rid of the OH-58 saves about $1 billion per year in sustainment and operating costs. There are also savings in reducing the types of training aircraft, 15 Kiowa-specific MOSs, manpower reductions, Kiowa-specific training, and even a reduction in contractor costs.

In the end, the Army has to operate within a much more fiscally-limited environment. Col. Frank Tate, the Army’s chief of aviation force development, commented that “we are in a fiscally constrained environment, which requires us to make hard choices, but we need to also make smart choices. In developing this plan, everything was on the table.”

UPDATE (7/16): The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee recently approved - with no debate - a 2015 spending bill that not only lets the Guard keep their Apaches but specifically opposes the helicopter transfer.