Thirty-seven UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters are about to start their journey back to the United States from Germany, the latest major movement in the Army's sweeping Aviation Restructuring Initiative.
The Black Hawks, which are expected to arrive at the port in Charleston, South Carolina, in mid-July, are coming from the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, which is being restructured.
The Katterbach, Germany-based brigade is slated to lose about 1,900 military positions while it retains a headquarters element to command all U.S. Army Europe aviation. The brigade will be augmented by rotational units from the U.S.
The cuts are part of the Army's five-year Aviation Restructuring Initiative, which includes eliminating the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior from the Army's inventory and inactivating the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade from Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
The controversial restructuring initiative also uses the AH-64 Apache to fill the Kiowa's reconnaissance and scout role, requiring the Army to pull Apaches from the National Guard inventory to fill the gap. The Army, in turn, would provide the Guard with UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, a move that has been decried by Guard advocates.
Overall, the cuts are part of a series of reductions the Army is making as it draws down to an end-strength of 490,000. So far, the Army has announced 13 brigade combat team inactivations and a massive restructuring of its remaining BCTs.
More cuts are expected to follow as the Army shrinks even further after this year.
In addition to the return of the 37 Black Hawks, the Army also is converting several helicopter units across the United States and switching the aircraft it uses to train future pilots.
"Aviation restructure is much bigger than the transfer of aircraft from one component to another, which is often how it's characterized," said Col. John Lindsay, director of aviation for the Army G-3 (operations). "It's fundamentally about optimizing the capability of our formations in both the reserve component and active component, and, end state, we'll have a better, more capable, modernized force."
The 37 Black Hawks making their way back to the U.S. will be used to meet "a variety of requirements," Lindsay said.
"The principal use for 20 of those aircraft will be to begin building assault battalion structure in the United States Army National Guard," he said.
Ten aircraft will go to the Tennessee Guard, five to the Missouri Guard, and five to the Pennsylvania Guard, he said. As part of the transfer of Apaches to the active Army, the Guard is slated to receive 111 Black Hawks.
These first 20 aircraft will mark the start of that process as the Guard builds its assault battalions, Lindsay said.
"It takes time to create this structure," he said. "Fortunately, we have UH-60s in every state in the National Guard. What that enables is the absorption of these aircraft, and I have pilots, crews, maintenance facilities, parts and things like that immediately available to fall in and begin operating the aircraft."
The transfer of the rest of the Black Hawks to the Guard – as well as the transfer of Apaches to the active Army – will take time, Lindsay said.
"I wouldn't want to transfer 111 Black Hawks to the National Guard in the month of July, just like I couldn't absorb 192 Apache helicopters in 2016," he said. "We're going to do it proportionally."
The rest of the Black Hawks being shipped from Germany will go to Fort Rucker in Alabama, Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras, and the Army Reserve.
In Charleston, the helicopters will be met by a National Guard unit that will execute port operations and offload the aircraft from the ship, Lindsay said.
"Our understanding is the aircraft will go directly to their ultimate destinations," he said. "They are not going to pause at any reset facility but go and be absorbed into their fleets."
In addition to receiving this shipment of Black Hawks, the Army is also executing the aviation restructuring across the force.
At the schoolhouse at Fort Rucker, the Army is eliminating the TH-67 and replacing it with the LUH-72 Lakota.
After months of refining the program of instruction and putting in place a cadre of instructor pilots, the Army will run its first test class in October, Lindsay said.
"Now that we have a baseline established within the program, we'll go ahead and put our first class of students through the paces in the LUH-72," he said.
Also beginning in October, the Army will, as outlined in the national defense authorization bill, transfer 48 Apaches from the Guard to the active Army. The Army has until the end of March to complete the transfer, Lindsay said.
There are no further restrictions after that time period, but the Army also is waiting for recommendations from the national commission tasked to study the aviation restructuring initiative as well as the overall structure of the Army.
The commission "will report out on the first of February, and we expect there will be more congressional interest following the recommendations from the commission," Lindsay said.
Until that happens, the Army is moving forward with the conversion of two OH-58D Kiowa Warrior battalions into Apache battalions.
In October, the attack reconnaissance squadron in the 1st Infantry Division's Combat Aviation Brigade will begin converting from Kiowas to Apaches. The squadron in the 25th Infantry Division's CAB will start the same process in March.
Lindsay estimates each conversion will take about a year.
"Ultimately, there will be 10 attack reconnaissance squadrons," he said, adding that plans call for a third conversion – this time in the 10th Mountain Division's CAB – in 2016.
By the end of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the Army will have divested more than 200 of its Kiowa Warrior helicopters, Lindsay said. The Army started the process with 358 Kiowas on hand.
Some of the 200 helicopters were turned over to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, while others, such as the TH-67s that were in the Fort Rucker schoolhouse, were provided to various law enforcement programs across the country.
All of the Army's Kiowas should be gone from the Army inventory by March 2017, Lindsay said.
The Army also is converting 10 other Apache battalions into heavy attack reconnaissance squadrons. This move adds three platoons of RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aerial systems to each unit. The first unit, 3rd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, of Fort Bliss, Texas, converted in March.
Two more units — 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and 4th Squadron, 6th Cavalry at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington — are scheduled to be converted this fiscal year, Lindsay said. Plans call for all 10 units to be converted by fiscal 2019.
When the conversions are completed, each division's combat aviation brigade will have an attack helicopter battalion, which has 24 Apaches, and an attack reconnaissance squadron with 24 Apaches and 12 Shadows, he said.
In addition, the attack battalions will be aligned with the MQ-1C Gray Eagle company that's assigned to each division.
"We had, at the beginning of aviation restructure, seven different aviation brigade types," Lindsay said. "At the end of FY19, we will have reduced those structures down to three."