Idaho caught in helicopter quandary

The state opposes the Army's plan to claim Apache aircraft from Gowen Field.

krodine@idahostatesman.comApril 23, 2014 

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Chief Warrant Officer 4 Stien Gearhart returns from a training mission on the AH-64D Apache Longbow in 2012, when the Idaho Army National Guard at Boise’s Gowen Field got its first such helicopters.

IDAHO NATIONAL GUARD

Up to 24 combat helicopters, 400 jobs and a proud Idaho tradition are at stake as the Idaho National Guard and the politicians who back it wait to learn whether the U.S. Army will succeed in its plan to divert Apache helicopters away from the Guard, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Despite the Army's resolve, the issue - and other budget topics - are not yet settled, Col. Tim Marsano said.

"The Apaches are owned by the U.S. Army at the Pentagon level, so at the end of the day, they have the authority to move them as they see fit," Marsano said Tuesday. But "there is a lot of dissent in Congress about the idea, as there is from Gov. Otter."

Otter's press secretary, Jon Hanian, said the governor is "very engaged" in the effort to keep the Army National Guard's Apaches as well as Gowen Field's Air Guard presence, which is jeopardized by an Air Force proposal to retire the A-10 Warthog jets and move the Air National Guard to Mountain Home Air Force Base.

"The governor has expressed his concern for the ongoing long-term viability of Gowen Field and to make sure there is a flying mission at Gowen," Hanian said.

Each state's National Guard operates at the behest of its governor, unless called to war by the president. All 50 governors signed a recent letter to President Barack Obama opposing the plan to move all Guard Apaches to the regular Army.

Gowen is authorized for 24 AH-64D Apache helicopters but has just 16 on the base, Marsano said. The new fleet of attack helicopters began arriving in May 2012, and "we've been getting them as they roll off the assembly line," he said.

The Apache is a combat aircraft with a mission to destroy armored and mechanized forces and protect troops with aerial firepower.

ROLE CHANGE: FROM COMBAT TO UTILITY

If top Army Gen. Ray Odierno's plan moves forward, the nearly 200 Apaches stationed at National Guard bases across the nation would be replaced by about 111 Black Hawk helicopters, which are used for transport, not battle.

"We don't know how many, if any, of those Black Hawks would go to Idaho," Marsano said, noting that Gowen Field already has eight of the utility helicopters.

Even if Idaho got a full share of the transferred Black Hawks, it would mean a drastic decrease in staffing for Idaho's Army National Guard, he said.

About 400 jobs at Gowen Field, including pilots, mechanics and support personnel, revolve around the Apache attack helicopters of the 1st Battalion, 183rd Aviation Regiment, Marsano said. About a third of those jobs are full time, he said.

If Idaho lost its Apaches and got some of the Black Hawk helicopters, he said, "at best we might get less than 100 personnel ... probably quite a bit less than 100."

Some Apache crew members could be cross-trained and keep their jobs, he said.

The switch from Apaches to Black Hawks would carry an emotional wallop as well for the soldiers at Gowen Field, he said.

What's at stake, he said, is "the continuation of a long tradition of combat availability that we've had in the Idaho Army National Guard."

Last deployed in 2006-07, Gowen's attack helicopter pilots won praise for their skill and valor in supporting and protecting ground troops overseas. A U.S. Marine commander credited Idaho Guard pilots for saving Marine lives when insurgents attacked a convoy in Afghanistan.

Apaches carry two pilots, one who flies the helicopter and one who operates the array of weapons, including Hellfire missiles, rockets and 30-mm machine guns.

The Idaho Guard's new fleet of Apaches has not been tested in battle. An expected deployment last fall was canceled by the Pentagon, Marsano said.

WHAT NEXT?

Neither the Idaho National Guard nor the governor's office knows when a decision will be made.

"This is really up for a fight in Congress right now," Marsano said.

The National Guard Association, a lobbying group, is fighting the Army's plan to take away combat helicopters. Maj. Gen. Gary Sayler, adjutant general of the Idaho Army National Guard, advocates an independent study of the issues and options, Marsano said.

"Gen. Sayler favors formation of an independent committee to give this an objective, hard look," he said.

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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