Contributor Guest Post: Kent Johnson, a former F-15E Strike Eagle and A-10 Warthog fighter pilot, is a former political-military adviser on the staff of the Secretary of the Air Force (International Affairs) and senior adviser to the Royal Air Force think tank. He is a political science adjunct (on sabbatical) at North Central Texas College specializing in defense studies.
The end of July has seen extraordinary flooding that has devastated the State of Kentucky. As of this writing, it has sadly claimed at least 35 lives. It has also caused untold property damage, necessitated a state of emergency declaration, and generated a multi-state emergency response. The Kentucky floods follow extreme flooding in Yellowstone National Park, brought on by rapidly melting snow and heavy rain back in June. Described by the U.S. Geological Survey as a “once in 500 year event,” the Yellowstone flooding significantly altered the landscape, and could end up costing billions in restoration costs over the years ahead.
Thankfully, there were no fatalities in the Yellowstone floods, an outcome due in great part to the valiant, professional, experienced and diligent actions of our National Guard. In fact, over the course of just a few days, the Montana National Guard was responsible for saving at least 87 people. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the search and rescue effort was made possible via Army National Guard airlift capabilities. Responding Guard elements – specifically the 1-189th General Support Aviation Battalion out of Helena – were able to extricate the flooding victims via use of a UH-60 Blackhawk and a CH-47 Chinook. In fact, the Guard’s aviation assets were instrumental to the rescue operation.
In Kentucky, though the human losses have been much greater than those out west, both the Air and Army National Guard have responded quickly to extract people from harm’s way. In fact, Guard units from Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia have responded with mix of Blackhawk, Lakota and Chinook helicopters to conduct search and rescue operations and airlift those in need of medical evacuation.
While the recovery of Americans left threatened by nature’s violence is an important story, there is a much larger issue of concern at stake. Simply, without the proper equipment and platforms, our National Guard runs the risk of not being able to respond to these kinds of incidents and emergencies as readily or as robustly as we need.
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And nowhere is the issue of Army National Guard readiness more urgent than in the area of aviation – particularly on the rotary-wing side – where concerns about the future of the Guard’s aviation battalions are growing. On one hand, ongoing delays with the UH-60V – a program in place for a half-decade, and ostensibly designed to upgrade older model Alpha and Lima Blackhawks – has so far delivered only a small handful of completely upgraded airframes to the ARNG; the initial program vision called for the conversion of over 700 aircraft. The Army had originally envisioned a production schedule of 48 aircraft per year – but deliveries so far have fallen far below that number. And at this rate of production, it could be years – perhaps over a decade – before the entire National Guard is fully equipped with the Victor model Blackhawk – a situation that raises real concerns about unit-by-unit capability, especially if older non-converted aircraft have to be phased out due to wear and tear. Moreover, the National Guard’s medium lift helicopter, the UH-72 Lakota, while a highly capable, efficient and modern aircraft, is not combat deployable, which adds a further layer of concern about overall National Guard readiness.
But even just focusing on the Guard’s domestic operations profile, rotary-wing aviation serves as a backbone capability for so many ARNG missions across the Nation – for emergency airlift and evacuation, to supply delivery and disaster relief, to counter-narcotics and first responder support. Any growing gaps in asset availability and readiness could pose real challenge when those aircraft are needed most. And as recent flooding has shown, local first responders heavily rely upon the airlift capabilities of the Army Guard when emergency challenges necessitate a more sophisticated response capacity.
It is these kinds of disasters which flash quickly and become more dangerous as they exist, that the U.S. National Guard is trained, experienced, poised and counted on by citizens and government to address. But the Guard’s ability to support the nation is hindered without reliable airlift platforms that make them so effective in responding to these situations. Indeed, several members of the California National Guard were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing at least 260 people trapped by a raging out-of-control wildfire back in late 2020. Absent reliable helicopter support and highly skilled aircrew, many fatalities would have been likely.
As the country moves deeper into summer, with hurricane season accelerating towards fall, and harsh winter weather soon to settle over northern states, the potential for National Guard aviation capabilities to see greater need in the months ahead is real and lives may be at stake. Regardless of region or cause, natural calamities repeatedly prove the value of, and critical need for, robust and ready Army Guard helicopter units. We cannot afford to allow future gaps in this important capability.
Kent Johnson, a former F-15E Strike Eagle and A-10 Warthog fighter pilot, is a former political-military adviser on the staff of the Secretary of the Air Force (International Affairs) and senior adviser to the Royal Air Force think tank. He is a political science adjunct (on sabbatical) at North Central Texas College specializing in defense studies.