The Army’s postwar downsizing will take another bite out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord this year, as a 400-soldier helicopter squadron will be shut down.
The plan to inactivate the Kiowa helicopters and crews of the 4th Attack Reconnaissance Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment became inevitable when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in February a proposal to phase out the Army’s entire Kiowa fleet.
Lawmakers in the the U.S. House did not challenge Hagel’s proposal last week when they considered the 2015 defense budget, so the plan is moving forward.
JBLM’s Kiowa squadron is among the first in line to close down on a five-year schedule. The Kiowa, the smallest helicopter in the Army, is used for scouting and observation duty and light-attack combat missions.
Closing the unit affects about 400 local aviators currently deployed with the squadron on a nine-month mission in South Korea. They’ll come home this summer, take post-deployment leave and then either move on to new units or separate from the military.
Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, spokesman for JBLM’s 7th Infantry Division, said the Army has not announced whether it plans to send a replacement unit to JBLM’s 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, which oversees the Kiowa squadron.
Its inactivation will leave JBLM with about 120 helicopters, down from the current fleet of roughly 150.
The Army is shedding tens of thousands of soldiers from its Iraq War peak of 570,000 active-duty troops. About 519,000 active-duty soldiers are in uniform today. At the end of the drawdown, the Army is expected to have a force of less than 450,000.
JBLM’s main contribution to the cutbacks so far was the inactivation of a 4,500-soldier Stryker brigade in March. The Army sent Strykers from the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to Fort Carson in Colorado and its soldiers have joined other units or left the military.
The Army also closed a 400-soldier artillery battalion at JBLM last year. It’s unclear if other units are being eyed for inactivation.
About 45,000 soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines serve at JBLM. About 32,000 are active-duty soldiers.
The Kiowa squadron’s history at JBLM goes back to 2005 when the Army moved it to the South Sound from Louisiana.
It brought 48 helicopters, most of which were OH-58 Kiowa aircraft. The unit also had some UH-60 Blackhawk combat transport helicopters; it was an oversized squadron that the Army used to build up its aviation assets at JBLM.
In late 2011, the squadron provided a foothold for a significant expansion of helicopters at JBLM. The 16th Combat Aviation Brigade headquarters moved here, and more subordinate units followed, including one that the flies Apache attack helicopters.
The aviation brigade’s headquarters, along with its Blackhawk and Apache battalions, are currently deployed on a nine-month tour in Afghanistan.
The Kiowa squadron left for South Korea in October. At the time, the Army announced that it would leave the squadron’s aircraft there and replace them at JBLM.
The replacement plan changed with the new Pentagon budget proposal. The Defense Department preferred shifting the Kiowas’ reconnaissance missions to unmanned aircraft and Apache helicopters rather than refurbish the fleet.
JBLM’s Kiowas will be turned over to U.S. Forces Korea.
The squadron has established a legacy of sacrifice since arriving at the base south of Tacoma.
In December 2006, three of its aviators were killed in a training accident in Enumclaw.
In 2007, it deployed to Iraq and lost five soldiers in two helicopter accidents.
In December 2011, four of its pilots died in a nighttime collision over JBLM when one helicopter crew flew into a training area occupied by another crew.
Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno visited the Kiowa squadron in South Korea in late February.
“In these very complex times, it is important that you are there every day for each other,” he told them, according to an Army press release.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646