By Joe Rutherford
Tupelo’s Army Aviation Support Facility may be in for big changes if a decision made by top military commanders earlier this month to shift all AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from the National Guard to the active U.S. Army takes place.
After what was described as intense internal debate, the U.S. National Guard Bureau chief, Army Gen. Frank Grass, gave his public signoff to the U.S. Army’s plan to move all of the Guard’s Apache helicopters into the active force and receive several hundred Black Hawk and Lakota multi-use helicopters in return.
Grass admitted in statements at an April 8 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that he would back the plan and implement it because the decision had been made by his superiors, but the issue has not gone quiet.
However, the order can’t be implemented until Congress authorizes it in the appropriations process for 2015, and significant opposition already exists.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a Tupelo resident, was among members of Congress who expressed concerns about the decision and its long-term impact.
In a statement to the Armed Services Committee about the Army’s planned modernization in the face of financial limitations, Wicker said he has “major reservations” about the Apache transfers.
Wicker, whose efforts were largely responsible over the span of a decade in bringing the $30 million Army Aviation Support Facility to the campus of Tupelo Regional Airport, said the Apaches have “performed superbly” under Guard command.
He said the Apaches enhance the National Guard’s ability to fight on short notice. Ten states, he said in his remarks, would be affected by the mass transfer to the active Army. Tupelo is the only Mississippi unit with Apaches.
Tim Powell, the communications chief for the Mississippi National Guard, said 14 Apaches are based in Tupelo, plus numerous Black Hawks and UH-72s (Lakotas). The Apaches operate under the 1-149th Aviation Battalion, and its last deployment was to Iraq from August 2006 to July 2007. At that time, it was known as Troop E, 104th Cavalry Regiment. It has not deployed as a unit to Afghanistan, but over the years, individual soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The 834th Support unit also is involved.
Powell said 63 people work fulltime at the Tupelo facility, 85 people are in the Apache command and 62 people in the support group. Most of the personnel are not full time.
A spokesman for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said Cochran wants to discuss the issue with Mississippi Adj. Gen. Augustus Collins. Chris Gallegos, Cochran’s communications director, said the senator is on record as having significant concerns about anything that would weaken the National Guard, and he noted that the generals’ decision must be authorized by Congress.
Powell also noted that until Congress authorizes the plan, it is a proposal and not a fact.
“Until it is actually placed in an authorization that passes in the 2015 budget, it can’t happen,” Powell said.
Powell said the situation is considered “very fluid” and is being watched closely.
“We know that our congressional delegation is fighting for us,” Powell said.
Wicker said he has doubts about the attainability of the $12 billion in savings over a period of years cited by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno.
Maj. Derek J. Holland, commander of AASF in Tupelo, was on an official mission Wednesday and not available for comment, secretary to the commander Janet McCarver said.
Several other members of Congress also expressed concern, media sources reported.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was sharply critical, saying after the hearing that taking away its Apaches “is a huge change. 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.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., meanwhile, expressed concern for the morale if Apache pilots and other personnel who had served for years were told they “aren’t needed any more.”