The four diminutive cargo planes parked on the National Guard air base in this Rust Belt town last year never would have been selected for a recruiting poster. Lacking the grace of a fighter or the girth of a freighter, the newly built twin-prop aircraft were the minivans of combat aviation — unsexy, utilitarian haulers of people and gear. But that didn’t matter to pilots and ground crews here. They loved the planes, as did troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not so the Air Force.
After spending almost $600 million to buy a tiny fleet of the planes over the past six years, stationing them in Mansfield and at two other National Guard bases, the Air Force flew all of them to a junkyard earlier this year. Five more planes, which the Pentagon already has paid for, will be mothballed as soon as they are built.
To Air Force leaders, it was all about economics. They deemed the small planes less efficient than larger, more commonly used transport aircraft.
To National Guard leaders in Ohio, however, it was all about politics. The decision to get rid of perfectly good planes, they argue, was driven by a desire among active-duty Air Force leaders to shift the burden of budget cuts onto the National Guard.
With no planes at the Mansfield base, the Pentagon would no longer pay for it — or the jobs there. Local leaders howled, and the state’s congressional delegation confronted the Air Force. The ensuing battle, which escalated into an intense political dogfight in Washington, was an opening skirmish in what many federal and state officials predict will be the next big clash over defense spending.
As shrinking budgets force the military to thin its ranks, many active-duty leaders, seeking to protect their ilk, want the pain to fall disproportionately on National Guard and reserve forces. Guard and reserve leaders insist that their units should be spared — some even argue that they should be expanded — and that reductions should be concentrated on the active-duty contingent.
Although the dispute is rooted in money, it involves fundamental debates about states’ rights and the future of the modern military. In private conversations, officials on both sides cast the fight in existential, zero-sum terms. Active officers want to preserve today’s professional, volunteer force, built from the ashes of Vietnam, a force in which many officers and enlisted personnel spend two decades or more continuously in uniform, often acquiring specialized skills and deployment experience. National Guard officials want to protect the role of state-based militias, whose “citizen soldiers” provide a critical link to American society and act as a hedge against wars of choice.
“This debate is all about the question of what kind of military we Americans want,” said retired Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, a former chief of the National Guard Bureau. “Are they an expeditionary, foreign-legion force, or are they the defenders of our nation — the people we use to protect our nation’s vital interests?”
The path to an answer illustrates an essential challenge in cutting the nation’s defense budget. The Pentagon will have its say on how much could and should be trimmed, but others will as well. Local leaders, seeking to protect jobs, will weigh in, as will governors, who don’t want to lose their airplanes and helicopters. Members of Congress, who traditionally have sided with members of the Guard, will be the ultimate arbiters.
The battle is expected to intensify early next year. A congressional commission examining the role of Guard and reserve units in the Air Force is supposed to release its findings by February. The group’s chairman, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Dennis McCarthy, said in an interview that he thinks active forces need to shrink more than the Guard and reserves. Speaking in a personal capacity, he called Guard and reserve units the “most cost-efficient” part of the force, putting him at odds with some active-duty leaders.
An even more contentious fight is shaping up in the Army, which is facing pressure from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to make planned personnel cuts even deeper. Army leaders are likely to call for reductions in the Army National Guard, defense officials said, although they would not be as steep as those planned for the active force. Many state officials oppose the idea of any cuts to the Army Guard.
Compare the planes
• Payload: 25,353 pounds
• Wingpsan: 94 feet, 2 inches
• Maximum passenger load: 60 troops
• According to the Ohio National Guard, it costs $2,100 an hour to fly the C-27J. Gen. Norton Schwartz, then Air Force chief of staff, told a Senate committee in 2012 that it cost $9,000 an hour.
• Payload: 42,000 pounds
• Wingpsan: 132 feet, 7 inches
• Maximum passenger load: 92 troops
• Costs about $10,000 an hour to operate, depending on model.
“There’s a lesson from Mansfield,” said a senior Pentagon official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity around the issue. “It’s not going to be easy — or pretty. In fact, it’s going to get ugly.”
The Air Force first put Mansfield in its sights eight years ago.
Back then, Air Force leaders wanted to move a fleet of larger transport planes away from this base and shutter the National Guard unit here, the 179th Airlift Wing. When the plan was rejected by a national base-closure commission set up by Congress, the Air Force struck a compromise: It would remove the transport planes but find something else for the wing to do.
The replacement was a smaller plane that the Air Force never really wanted. The Army, looking for a faster and cheaper way than helicopters to move troops and supplies between big bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, had decided to buy a new plane called the C-27. Made in Italy, it looks like a smaller, two-propeller version of the C-130, the transport planes the Air Force had just transferred away from Mansfield.
Air Force strategists, however, didn’t see the service’s future as supporting troops fighting grueling counterinsurgency operations. They wanted to concentrate their resources on fielding sophisticated warplanes to address threats from China, North Korea and Iran.
The defense secretary at the time, Robert M. Gates, sought to broker a compromise by persuading the Air Force and the Army to jointly buy, train in and fly the plane. It appeared to be a model of cooperation — and detente. When it came time to find homes for the new C-27s, the Air Force put Mansfield atop the list.
After the planes arrived, the Air Force insisted on sole control of the fleet — and received it from Gates. The following year, the Air Force cut the number of C-27s it planned to buy from 78 to 38.
“That was the warning shot,” said Col. Gary McCue, the 179th’s commander. “They were coming after their own plane.”
A bald, broad-shouldered career aviator, McCue hoped the Air Force would change its mind after seeing the C-27 in action. A year later, in the fall of 2010, he deployed two of the planes in southern Afghanistan, working for an Army combat aviation brigade to ferry personnel and materiel. Although Army commanders gave the C-27 rave reviews, the Air Force was unmoved.
In January 2012, while some of the 179th’s pilots and planes were still in Afghanistan, the Air Force revealed its intention to send all the C-27s at Mansfield and two other Air National Guard bases to a sprawling desert parking lot for unneeded planes at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.
Air Force leaders said the decision, which did not involve consultation with state Guard officials, was purely economic. Unlike the bigger C-130, the C-27 has a narrower range of uses. Those benefits, service officials said, did not justify the costs of maintaining the small fleet. Each plane in the force’s fleet adds to training and maintenance expenditures.
“It’s a less capable platform on the low end of the airlift spectrum,” said Michael Donley, the Air Force secretary at the time. “If we’re going to get smaller, we need to focus on multi-role aircraft, not niche aircraft.”
Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff at the time, called it a “common-sense business decision.”
McCue and other officers in the Ohio Air National Guard maintain that the C-27 is far more efficient than the Air Force claims. But to him, the decision was never about money.
“It was parochial,” he said. “They didn’t want the Army to have them — and they didn’t want us to have them either.”
Air Force leaders, he thinks, “set us up to fail because they want to gut the Guard.”
To state leaders in Ohio, the 64-acre base on the western side of Mansfield’s municipal airport is an icon of efficient federal defense spending. Save for a tiny convenience store, there are none of the amenities found on full-scale Air Force installations — no bowling alley, movie theater or golf course. There are no enlisted barracks or stately homes for officers, just a dozen utilitarian buildings and a hulking hangar. Compared with active-duty bases, this compound is run by a skeleton crew: a core staff of 275 full-time airmen who live in nearby communities, augmented by 650 part-time Guardsmen who drill one weekend a month and two weeks a year.
“We’re the volunteer fire department of the Air Force,” McCue said. “We are very, very lean.”
Active officers acknowledge Mansfield’s frugality, but they note that the cost of operating scores of small Guard bases adds up. They contend that the Air Guard needs to consolidate in fewer, larger installations, where it would enjoy economies of scale. Ohio, for instance, has four air wings, each operating at different facilities.
That might make sense, Guard officials say, if today’s Guard were the Guard of the 1980s and ’90s: a bunch of weekend warriors who rarely deployed. In the post-9/11 years, however, the Guard has provided a substantial portion of the nation’s combat power in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 450,000 Americans serve in the Guard. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Guard members have been mobilized by the Army and the Air Force more than 750,000 times in support of overseas missions. For several months in 2005, more than half of all U.S. troops in Iraq were Guard members.
For units such as the 179th, their contributions to the Air Force extend beyond months-long deployments in war zones. Personnel from Mansfield routinely volunteer to fly whenever and wherever the Defense Department needs help hauling cargo. But unlike active members, Guard personnel receive their full wage — the same as an active member of equivalent rank — only when they are working or training. Their compensation shrinks when they take off their uniform.
Last year, the Air National Guard provided about a third of the Air Force’s overall combat and transport capacity — from flying patrols over the United States to conducting airstrikes in Afghanistan — for about 6 percent of the service’s overall budget. “That’s a great deal for America,” said retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, an advocacy group that represents Guard members and state officials.
Because Guard members typically signed up to assist their states, and the nation, during emergencies — most have full-time jobs — the Defense Department has promised not to activate them more than once every five years. Active personnel, by contrast, can be deployed overseas once every three years or less.
That schedule provides another incentive for Air Force leaders to favor the active force. “It’s overly optimistic to think you can get the same availability with the reserves as you can with the active component,” said Schwartz, the former Air Force chief.
But Guard officials argue that they have been quick to help when asked. When the Air Force requested two Ohio Air National Guard KC-135 refueling tankers last year to support operations over Libya, the state made the planes — and the crews to fly them — available within 24 hours.
Guard members and reservists also bring unique professional knowledge to the fight. Some of the military’s most adept cyber-warriors are part-time soldiers who work for large technology firms, and many Air Guard pilots have been flying for decades as commercial aviators.
“They have life experiences that the average soldier or Marine hasn’t had yet,” said Blum, the former Guard bureau director.
Unlike active troops, who are clustered in and around a few dozen large military installations, Guard members are spread across the nation. Including them in military operations, he said, helps to build and sustain popular support.
Activating them is more difficult than issuing orders to active personnel — businesses and families get disrupted — but such a cost, Blum said, is a worthy check on those seeking to wage war. “It makes our political leaders ensure that what they’re asking these people to do is worth it,” he said. “It makes the decision to send them much harder — and it should be.”
As soon as the Air Force announced its plans to junk the C-27, Mansfield went to battle stations.
Eight community leaders, including the president of the city’s largest bank and the publisher of the local newspaper, met in the mayor’s office to map out their defense. They concluded that advocating for the Guard’s efficiency — or the plane’s — to defend the nation wasn’t going to stoke a frenzy. They opted to make it personal.
“For us, it was a matter of saving jobs,” said John Brown, the president of Richland Bank. And Mansfield, the local leaders concluded, couldn’t afford to lose any more.
The city’s once-dominant employer, General Motors, shuttered its plant here two years ago, putting about 1,200 people out of work. The steel mill also has been shedding positions. Although the giant state correctional facility on the road to the airport has been adding guards — “The Shawshank Redemption” was filmed on the grounds of the old jail next door — city leaders didn’t want Mansfield, which sits halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, to be known only as a prison town.
They went back to the war plans they used in 2005 when the base first was targeted — banners and billboards proclaiming “Save the 179th” were erected around the city — but those mounting the fight also added new weapons. They urged residents to e-mail members of Ohio’s congressional delegation. More than 30,000 messages were sent — from a city with 50,000 residents.
“We got their attention,” said retired Guard Brig. Gen. Richard Green, a former legislative director for the National Guard Association who now lives in Mansfield and helped lead the effort.
Ohio’s two U.S. senators, Mansfield native Sherrod Brown (D) and Rob Portman (R), took up the cause. Portman grilled Air Force leaders Schwartz and Donley on their cost calculations for the C-27, their principal justification for cutting the plane. He cited Defense Department data showing that while in Afghanistan, C-27 pilots were asked to move only one pallet of cargo on 65 percent of their missions. Replacing the C-27s with larger planes that require more fuel to operate, Portman noted, would not be more efficient. “It leaves me with the feeling that you’re trying to get this analysis to match a budget decision,” he told them.
Then Mansfield got lucky. That August, the White House announced that President Obama had scheduled a campaign stop in the city and would be flying into the Mansfield base. Ohio was a swing state, and the downtrodden Mansfield area was a source of potential Democratic votes.
The day before the trip, a reporter asked White House press secretary Jay Carney whether Obama was aware that he would be landing at a base that was slated to be closed. Carney appeared flummoxed.
The next day, McCue waited on the tarmac to greet Obama. He planned to beseech the president to save his base. But the White House preempted him. By the time Obama touched down , the White House had announced that Mansfield would be receiving a “new mission.”
“It’s not by accident that we landed here,” McCue recalled Obama telling him.
During the week of the November 2012 general election, the Air Force revealed Mansfield’s “new” mission: It would receive C-130 transports — the same plane it had before the switch to the C-27.
The base was slated to receive eight C-130s — four more planes than it had when it was flying the C-27s — and the authorization to hire a few hundred more full- and part-time personnel to fly and service them.
“It would have been cheaper to have just left us with the C-27s,” McCue said. “But the Air Force, in its infinite wisdom, is now spending more on us.”
In an attempt to mollify Congress and recoup some of what it shelled out for the C-27s, the Air Force has been seeking new owners for the planes. Last month, it announced that the Special Operations Command would take seven.
Air Force leaders say they have learned valuable lessons from the Mansfield fight. Instead of requiring top active-duty officers to sign nondisclosure agreements, the current service chief, Gen. Mark Welsh, has pledged to be more transparent with the Guard and reserves, and to consider input from state Guard leaders before making budget decisions that will affect them.
“We’ve taken a quantum leap forward” in communication, said Lt. Gen. Michael Moeller, the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs.
Earlier this year, Welsh convened three generals — one each from the active, reserve and Guard forces — to suggest ways for their components to improve relations. Their recommendations include removing legal restrictions on the ability of Guard and reserve personnel to train active airmen and increasing the number of Guard officers in the Air Force’s headquarters staff. It is only 3 percent today.
Welsh has agreed to accept some of the recommendations right away — but not all. “You can’t beam up a two-star air Guard general who has never had a staff tour before and expect him to work in Washington,” Moeller said.
The team’s most significant contribution, however, has been to provide Air Force leaders with new analytical tools to weigh the costs and benefits of changes to the mix of personnel and equipment. Among the factors they consider are “political viability” and the “institutional health” of the Air Force.
“It shows that we need each other,” said Maj. Gen. Brian Meenan, a reservist who flies long-haul jets for United Airlines. “There’s power in one Air Force with three components.”
The good feelings in Washington have not yet brought comfort to Mansfield. Guard officers here think the Air Force has responded with spite to the White House directive. The first three C-130s sent to the base are hand-me-downs from other states and are among the oldest in the fleet. On a recent afternoon, a team of mechanics was banging disconcertingly on the innards of an engine while another plane was taxiing for takeoff.
Once the plane lined up on a southwest-heading runway, Maj. Jeremy Ford pushed the four throttle levers forward, spinning the props to a deafening roar. The aircraft began rolling, slowly picking up speed. As Ford pulled back on the control stick, rotating for a steep 30-degree climb and then a sharp left turn, he reminded himself that he was no longer in a new C-27.
“Let’s see what the old girl can do,” he said.
After it took a brief loop over Mansfield’s rolling hills and a graceful touchdown, McCue, who was observing from the ground, said the antiquated planes worry him. Not because of their airworthiness, but because of where they are likely to fall on the Air Force’s next list of aircraft to junk. Three-decade-old C-130s, he said, “are a ripe target.”
“We’ve been set up to fail,” he said as he walked across his base. “This fight isn’t over. They’re coming after us again.”