Senators float study to avert Guard cuts

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Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday indicated support for delaying a plan that would shift resources and cut National Guard personnel, over the clear objections of senior Army officials.

The Army has finalized a decision to transfer all of the Guard’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to the active Army and replace them with 111 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. That change would result in cuts of several thousand Guard personnel and is part of a broader package that would lead to 19,000 soldiers cut from the Guard.

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Some senators in Tuesday's hearing floated the idea of a commission to study the plan further. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked Gen. Frank Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau, whether he would support a commission. Just a week ago, Grass had proposed a plan to allow for some Guard cuts, and Tuesday, he indicated support for a commission. 

“My personal opinion is that it never hurts to have another look,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added that he was planning to propose an independent Senate commission, similar to one already proposed by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) in the House, to evaluate the force structure changes. Graham was sharply critical of the plan, saying after the hearing that taking away its Apaches would “transform how the Guard works” by depriving it of direct combat utility.

“Taking the Apaches away from the Army National Guard is a huge change,” Graham said. “The Guard has been a combat arms reserve force, and by taking the attack helicopters out of the card, they have no more combat mission in aviation.

“It’s not the number of aircraft, [the problem is] losing the mission.”

But talk of a commission was hotly opposed by Army officials who have backed the force structure change plan and want to see it move ahead quickly. According to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, who also testified at the hearing, these and other adjustments to the air assets of the National Guard would save $12 billion in the next several years.

He said the adjustments would let the Army retire the OH-58 Kiowa helicopter and avoid expensive upgrades.

Odierno said a commission would prevent the force structure from being made, and waste time and money while it studies the issue further. He said those delays would cost up to $1 billion per year and force the Army to deactivate as many as 30,000 active Army troops.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, chief of the Army Reserve, supported Odierno, saying he believed the Army could show leadership in navigating its budget challenges. “It’s not clear to me why we need an Army commission,” he said.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) asked Grass whether depriving the Guard of attack aircraft would relegate it to a support role rather than a full combat arm, and Grass indicated that many states share this same fear.

“I’ve received letters from governors ... and there’s a concern. They want to stay as a combat reserve of the Army and the Air Force, so it is a concern for us,” Grass said. 

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), meanwhile, said he’s worried about the morale of the Guard if Apache pilots and other personnel who had served for years are told they “aren’t needed anymore.”

Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was one senator clearly opposed to reopening the issue. He said the generals had made a strong case for the proposed changes and praised Grass for endorsing them.

“Gen. Grass ... was very responsible in his comments this morning,” Levin said, “[in] avoiding any kind of appearance that could look or be divisive.”

Grass’s comments seemed to fall short of a ringing endorsement, however. When asked at the hearing with Army officials next to him what he thought about the final decision to move ahead with the force structure change, he said only that he lost the argument.

“The decision’s been made. I provided my best military advice, and I provided options. But now that the decision’s been made, I have to plan for the future,” Grass said.