FORT RUCKER, Ala., July 11, 2014 —
On the last stop of his two-day trip to military bases in U.S. Southeast, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stopped yesterday here at the home of Army aviation, hopping onto the grass of Howze Field from the backward-sliding door of a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter.
That morning, Hagel had visited for the first time Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle, home to the Air Force’s first full squadron of F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter aircraft, to meet with F-35 pilots and maintainers and base leadership, and host an all-hands event with Eglin troops.
The secretary’s first stop the previous day had been Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, the East Coast homeport for six Ohio-class fleet ballistic-missile and two guided-missile submarines. There, he met with 14 female submarine officers, toured the fleet ballistic-missile submarine USS Tennessee and the base’s Trident Refit Facility before speaking with Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard troops.
Hagel made the trip to ensure the department stays focused on long-term concerns affecting American interests and allies in Asia, Europe and around the world.
Defense officials characterized his visit to Fort Rucker and the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence as an effort to highlight the Army Aviation Restructure Initiative, a key component of the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal.
The initiative allows the Army to meet drawdown targets but retain the fleet’s most capable platforms and was developed as an alternative to across-the-board cuts to Army aviation programs.
In written testimony June 18 before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, Hagel said the Army would streamline its helicopter force from seven to four airframes. Aging Kiowa helicopters and older training helicopters will be retired and replaced with more advanced Apache helicopters that will move from the National Guard to the active force, the secretary said.
The Guard will receive Black Hawk helicopters that are critical for war fighting and more adaptable for such Guard missions as disaster relief and emergency response, Hagel told the senators.
In the past decade of war, Apache helicopters have been in high demand, he added.
“We need to put the Apaches where they will be ready to deploy fast and frequently when they’re needed,” the secretary said. “This decision will help the Guard’s helicopter force … adhere to state and federal requirements for homeland defense, disaster relief and support to civil authorities while still serving as an important operational and strategic complement to our active-duty military.”
Hagel said the Guard’s helicopter fleet would decline by 8 percent and the active Army’s by 25 percent, but “the overall fleet will be significantly modernized under the president’s budget plan.”
The Army’s four remaining airframes will be the Apache attack helicopter, the Black Hawk, the Chinook, and the Lakota light utility helicopter, used mainly for training here and for use within the National Guard.
The Lakota helicopter is a dual engine, glass cockpit similar to modernized Army aircraft like the Chinook, Black Hawk and Apache helicopters. Commercial off-the-shelf aircraft is maintained according to Federal Aviation Administration requirements, and the Lakota needs only a few modifications to serve as the Army’s training helicopter, the defense officials said.
Active aviation brigades will be reduced and reconfigured from 13 to 10, officials said. The Reserve component will retain 12 aviation brigades but they will be restructured and optimized for homeland security and combat assault, lift and medical evacuation missions.
While here yesterday, Hagel had a roundtable discussion and lunch with Army aviators and then inspected and received briefing on several Army helicopters displayed in Howze Field.
Later, at the Army Aviation Museum, Hagel addressed nearly 200 Fort Rucker troops, offering remarks, thanking them and their families for years of dedication and sacrifice, and taking a few questions from the audience.
But first the secretary wanted to express a long-time personal appreciation that was apparent in his voice, understandable to any former infantryman, of combat helicopter pilots everywhere.
“What you do here is essential,” Hagel said to the troops of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker. “I saw it firsthand when I was in Vietnam in 1968, and I saw some of the photos on the wall of what we used to refer to as Eagle Flights.”
In that war, helicopters took infantrymen like Hagel into remote jungle areas that were hard to reach by other means.
“The helicopter would hover 4 feet to 6 feet off the ground, and we would jump out of the helicopters,” the secretary recalled, “and then five or six days later, we’d find our way out of wherever we were.”
Very early in life, Hagel added, he established a significant appreciation for the work performed at Fort Rucker.
“I saw amazing courage and commitment from all of you and those who went before you,” he said, “and that was, in your opinion, not anything special. It was just who you were, what you did, and that was just expected.”
The secretary added, “I think often that's taken for granted, but I want you to know with this secretary of defense it's not, and I know our leaders in all our services feel the same way. I know President [Barack] Obama feels the same way.”
When Hagel invited questions from the soldiers, topics included the severe budget cuts known as sequestration, and what the department will do about the lack of military personnel available when the next conflict arises.
“If sequestration continues -- and it is the law of the land and it will come back in 2016 unless the Congress changes it -- then it will affect everything we do and every decision we make,” Hagel said.
Sequestration, part of the 2010 Budget Control Act, will make it necessary for the Defense Department to go back to taking another $50 billion-a-year cut from the base budget in addition to a 10-year, $490 billion cut that two years ago began to come out one year at a time for 10 years, he said.
“Last year, we took about a $37 billion cut,” Hagel explained. “We had to furlough people. There was a government shutdown for 16 days that further complicated everything, hurt your training [and] hurt your operations. You were not able to fly, nor was anyone else in training.”
Army and Navy were unable to train, the secretary added, and the shutdown affected defense maintenance, operations, all training and directly affected readiness.
“So sequestration will come back in 2016 unless Congress changes it, and we have been making the case in our budget presentations in all the committees that they're going to have to do something about this, because it will affect everybody,” Hagel said. “We can [reduce the budget] now in a gradual way, but if we're forced into sequestration again, where we've got no other recourse, then it will get a lot tougher than it is.”
In response to the question about a lack of military personnel for a future conflict, Hagel said that in future years the military services will have a fully capable force in every service and the necessary capacity in numbers of service members.
“Historically -- you all know this -- when this country comes out of war. … there's always a resetting, a reposturing. There is always an examination of how you handle not just current threats and realities you're dealing with in the world, but the future,” Hagel said.
The secretary said he’s even heard people say that the U.S. Army may, through sequestration cuts, get to the lowest point in terms of capacity that it has reached since just before World War II. “I don't know if that's true, but we're still going to have a big Army and Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force components. But let’s just take that comparison,” he said, looking around the audience.
“Does anybody seriously believe that you can equate a soldier in the United States Army in 1940 to a soldier in this  Army in terms of capability, capacity, technology, weaponry, training, leadership or motivation?Come on” he said. He looked at them briefly in theatrical disbelief before warming to his argument.
“I don't buy into a quantifiable, capacity-to-capacity, number-to-number comparison. Our ships, our platforms, our helicopters -- it’s a whole different world, the capability we have. We can do more things than ever before with actually fewer numbers of people,” Hagel said.
But the secretary said he understood the soldier’s point.
“You can't ever allow a force to get too low, … and we don't intend to do that,” he said.
“When you look at the big numbers, we're talking about 480,000, depending on how bad sequestration gets. If the Congress doesn't change sequestration, then we're going to be faced with more reductions -- we won't have any choice. … So I get exactly your question, and I too am concerned,” Hagel said. “But we won't allow those numbers to go down to anywhere near any even questionable number. … We’ll have the capacity.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)