The final countdown has begun for the Army's Kiowa Warriors.
Members of 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, arrived in South Korea earlier this month to complete the Kiowa's final deployment.
Upon the unit's return to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in nine months, the unit's OH-58Ds helicopters are slated to be replaced with the more modern AH-64D Apaches.
The National Guard's Apaches will be redistributed to the Army in exchange for UH-60 Black Hawks. This transition is a product of the Army's Aviation Restructuring Initiative, a controversial five-year plan to retire "legacy systems" like the 50-year-old Kiowa, and to make use of newer technologies while maximizing the number of active aircrafts.
The soldiers of Task Force Saber are actually the last squadron in the Army to make the conversion to Apaches.
Manufactured by Bell Helicopters, the Kiowa's first flight was in 1966 during the Vietnam War. It has been in service ever since then, most recently in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. It first appeared in Fort Bragg's inventory in 1990.
"The Kiowa Warrior is a really great aircraft, one that every Air Cavalry trooper holds near and dear to their heart," said Capt. Adan Cazarez, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade public affairs officer. "Although it is sad to see the aircraft be retired, it is also exciting to see the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade modernize to meet the realities of an evolving mission."
The transition is not exclusive to the aircraft.
"Kiowa officers have the opportunity to transition to another airframe or pursue a career in another branch or functional area, as will their enlisted counterparts," Cazarez said.
Kiowa engineers and mechanics with MOSs 15J and 15S will have to reclassify to their corresponding Apache specialties, 15Y and 15R.
According to the Army Careers website, 15Y requires 10 weeks of Basic Combat Training (BCT) and 24 weeks of Advanced Individual Training; 15R is 10 weeks BCT and 17 weeks AIT. The Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery test scores required for these positions are almost identical to their Kiowa specialty counterparts.
While stationed in South Korea, the 82nd Airborne Division will work with ground forces to continue its surveillance and reconnaissance duties, Cazarez said.
Though the Kiowa easily fills the traditional role of a reconnaissance and scouting helicopter needed for these deployments, the Apache holds greater potential. And the Apache is not coming alone either.
"There is a need for experienced aviators with a cavalry mindset with the expansion of the AH-64 Apache and unmanned aerial vehicle fleet," Cazarez said.
With modifications, the single-engine Kiowa Warrior can carry four Hellfire missiles, 14 Stinger missiles, or dual 0.50-caliber machine guns. The Apache has a similar arsenal, wielding all three possible weapons systems at once: 16 laser-guided Hellfires, 76 Stingers, and a front-mounted 30mm chain gun.
Combat capabilities aside, the Apache holds a tactical advantage over the Kiowa in speed and durability. The sides of the helicopter and its rotor are reinforced to withstand enemy fire, made from a mix of aluminum, titanium, and carbon fibers like Kevlar.
The two-engine Apache can reach maximum speeds of nearly 170 mph, beating the Kiowa's 140 mph combat speed.
The addition of unmanned aerial vehicles multiplies these advantages.
"The combination of the Apaches' lethal weapons and their ability to be teamed with unmanned aerial vehicles enables helicopter crews to find and go after dynamic or fast-moving targets from farther distances," Cazarez said.
The pairing of the Apache, essentially an assault helicopter, with the RQ-7 Shadow UAV creates the opportunity for the Apache to play a supporting part. Seeing through the eye of the Shadow's real-time video feed, an Apache crewman operating the UAV can survey enemy movements and relay information back to ground forces. The Shadow is capable of moving at speeds of up 135 mph.
Though the Kiowa will be missed, the Army holds the Apaches and their UAV partners in high regard.
"The additional capability of teaming Apaches and unmanned aerial vehicles essentially changes the face of the battlefield," Cazarez said.