Transport planes have a hard time finding a new home in the world of Defense, politics

Walter Pincus
Reporter March 19

Closing military bases and consolidating operations to save money are not simple moves.

Take the Air Force’s constantly shifting plans to move 10 of the 20 C-130J Super Hercules transport planes. Stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., the planes are part of the Air Force Reserve 403rd Wing and are used primarily for tactical airlift missions.

Plans for where the planes and their crews should move have changed repeatedly, and at a head-spinning pace.

In February 2012, the Air Force announced that it would relocate Keesler’s 10 C-130J aircraft to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia. It was part of a long-term plan to save about $480 million.

At that time, Rep. Steven M. Palazzo (R-Miss.), who represents the area, told a local TV station, “We’re just going to ask the tough questions and . . . if they don’t have the right answers, I think it’s going to be safe, because we have to protect Keesler’s mission.”

Tough questioning turned up that moving to Dobbins would require larger hangars, which would require more money.

In March 2013, the Air Force announced that it had changed plans: The 10 C-130Js would be going to Pope Field, near Fayetteville, N.C., where there were hangars to accommodate the planes.

In fact, Pope had been preparing for five years to receive the newer C-130Js. After the March 2013 announcement, the local 440th Airlift Wing began training flight crews and maintenance personnel on the new aircraft, according to the Fayetteville Observer.

But that August, the Air Force announced a year’s delay in the move, from October 2013 to October 2014.

When the Air Force budget for fiscal 2015 was released this month, it showed that the 10 aircraft would not go to Pope after all. Instead, it seems that they are going to Little Rock Air Force Base, the center for C-130 training pilots and maintenance and engine repair.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing Friday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said there had been a problem with recruiting Air Force reservists to staff the new aircraft that had been headed to Pope. Besides, he said, putting the planes in Little Rock would save about $10 million a year under an interservice support agreement that Air Force units would have to pay to the Army for using Pope Field, Welsh told the panel.

“This is an effort by the Air Force Reserve to save some money, to downsize their people. They have to take cuts, as do we,” Welsh added.

At Little Rock, the planned move will lead to reactivation of the 913th Airlift Group — a reserve unit that was deactivated when its home base at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove in Pennsylvania was closed under the 2005 BRAC process.

“While we’re certainly excited about our future as part of a strengthened Team Little Rock, we understand that this proposed budget request is in the early stages of the political process,” said Col. Archie Frye, commander of the affected Arkansas reserve unit.

Moving the 10 transports from Mississippi to Arkansas is not a done deal — at least when it comes to congressional lawmakers.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing March 10, asked Air Force Gen. Paul Selva to explain the move to Little Rock after abandoning plans for Dobbins and then Pope Field.

Wicker said, “Taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to provide Keesler Air Force Base with state-of-the-art modern hangars and facilities. As a matter of fact, Keesler has enough space to house two squadrons.”

He requested that Selva, who was up for confirmation as the head of U.S. Transportation Command, offer an assurance that moving the 10 C-130Js from Keesler will not require any military construction at Little Rock and will save money. Selva said the Air Force Reserve Command recommended this newest move because it would eliminate 600 jobs and save $100 million over five years.

Four days later, Palazzo, at Friday’s House Armed Services hearing, told Welsh, “I’ll tell you up front: I’m going to fight to kill this one just as I fought to kill the previous two. . . . That makes three different bases for these airmen in three years. It seems like the Air Force is hell-bent on moving these planes out of South Mississippi.”

Palazzo closed by saying: “I don’t care about how much it would have cost to move the planes to Pope. I don’t care how much it was going to cost to move them to Dobbins. I want to know exactly how much it was going to cost in actual dollars — fuel, [military construction], other relocation costs, manpower down time — for these planes to move to Little Rock Air Force Base from Keesler Air Force Base. I’ve been asking for cost justifications for these movements for over two years now, and I’m yet to see an answer that shows me any cost savings.”

Welsh promised to get the answers, and Air Force Secretary Deborah James promised to accept Palazzo’s invitation to visit Keesler and see, as the lawmaker put it, the C-130J units “firsthand, the community that loves them very much and the great work that they are doing.”

Anyone want to bet on where these 10 C-130Js will be five years from now?

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