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Out with Kiowa helicopters, in with Apaches, as JBLM brings back air cavalry unit

Joint Base Lewis-McChord this week is gaining 24 Apache attack helicopters, doubling the number of those aircraft at the base and restoring a unit the Army cut last year as part of a military downsizing plan.

All together, JBLM will net about 400 new soldiers to build up a unit called the 4th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment. That unit was stationed at JBLM from 2005 until last year, primarily flying Kiowa reconnaissance helicopters.

The change means South Sound residents may notice more noise from helicopter flights near JBLM, as they did in 2013 before deployments took the aircraft overseas.

The Army temporarily disbanded the squadron last year as part of a downsizing plan to phase out Kiowa helicopters. First flown by the Army in 1969, Kiowas are small, two-seat aircraft primarily used to scout terrain and sometimes to protect ground troops.

The squadron is being restored with AH-64 Apache helicopters that had been based at Fort Carson, Colorado. Apaches are larger, have more firepower and also can be used to gather intelligence.

JBLM was one of the first to lose its Kiowa squadron after Congress adopted then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s 2014 recommendation to eliminate the aircraft. JBLM’s squadron left its helicopters in South Korea when the local unit finished a deployment there in the summer of 2014.

The restored squadron will serve under the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, a helicopter headquarters built at JBLM in 2012. The brigade spent last year in Afghanistan and is back in its domestic training cycle.

Bringing back the 4th Squadron did not compel the Army to revise a 2011 environmental impact study that permitted JBLM to gain a helicopter headquarters and other Apache units.

More study was not needed because JBLM still will have fewer Army helicopters than when the aviation brigade launched three years ago. That’s because Kiowa squadrons tend to have 30 aircraft whereas Apache units have 24 helicopters.

JBLM will now have 48 Apaches helicopters in two Apache battalions. The base’s total helicopter fleet will include about 130 Army Reserve, National Guard, active-duty and Special Operations aircraft.

On the whole, the Army is reducing the number of active-duty soldiers stationed at JBLM. The base has about 27,000 active-duty soldiers, down from a peak of about 34,000 in 2011.

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