Air Force support to Fort Bragg paratroopers continues to decline
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 9, 2016
The Air Force's support to Fort Bragg has been on a steady decline in recent months, according to numbers provided by Sen. Thom Tillis.
Citing statistics from February to May, Tillis said the Air Force's support to Fort Bragg has been steadily declining since the 440th Airlift Wing flew its last missions in support of local paratroopers earlier this year.
That decline appears to be further complicating the relationship between airborne forces at Fort Bragg and the Air Force planes needed to support their missions.
Fort Bragg leaders have said the goal for parachute training is 10,000 drops a month for the 18th Airborne Corps and 82nd Airborne Division. The bare minimum for proficiency, they said, is 8,000 drops.
The last time the 10,000 chute goal was met was in February. Since then, the Air Force support has been in a steady decline.
Tillis is one of several members of Congress who have sworn to hold the Air Force accountable for its support on Fort Bragg.
"It really represents a trend that, sadly, we predicted and has been realized," he said.
Tillis said he and others warned that taking the unit away could have dire consequences for the training of the nation's Global Response Force, which is comprised mostly of Fort Bragg units.
"They completely did not get what we were trying to say," he said. "Now we've got a readiness problem."
February was the last month in which the 440th Airlift Wing, slated for inactivation in September, supported paratrooper drops.
Since then, Tillis said Air Force support has fallen from 7,400 paratrooper drops, or 74 percent of the training requirements, to 4,800 drops in May.
Col. Joe Scrocca, a spokesman for the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, said that since January, the corps and 82nd Airborne Division have averaged about 7,600 paratrooper drops a month.
The May training gap, in which the Air Force supported less than half of the training requirements, was shrunk with help from other aviators, officials said. More than 1,250 paratrooper drops were supported by Army helicopters and a visiting German C-160.
In the past, the 440th Airlift Wing could have helped close the gap, Tillis said. But that unit is nearing inactivation, and its last C-130H left Pope Field last month.
"Who made up the deficit? There are no Air Force planes left at Pope to provide cover. The Army used its helicopter assets at Fort Bragg to try to fill in the gap - but that's not sustainable," Tillis said. "Who came to the rescue? The German air force. That's right. The 18th Airborne Corps had to call on the good graces of the German air force to drop more than 1,000 chutes."
The evolving debate over support is the latest development since the controversial decision to shutter the 440th Airlift Wing more than two years ago.
Supporters of the wing, which had been the only Air Force unit flying airlift missions from Fort Bragg, argued the benefits of having hometown aircraft outweighed any savings the inactivation would provide the Air Force.
Air Force leaders, however, countered that outside crews could support the Fort Bragg training.
But several months in, they have yet to prove it. Instead, leaders are questioning Fort Bragg's training goals.
"The Air Force remains fully committed to offering tactical airlift support for our Army partners at Fort Bragg, now and in the future," said 1st Lt. Elias J. Small, a spokesman for Air Mobility Command based at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. "The requests we receive each month are fluid and rarely reach the 10,000 chute target, but we continue to partner with the Army to provide support for requirements we receive."
"Looking to the future, we rely on regular dialog directly with 18th Airborne Corps to remain responsive to their needs and maximize our support," Small said.
But Fort Bragg officials said the need is already there.
"Between 18th Airborne Corps and 82nd Airborne Division, we typically request 11,000 to 14,000 seats per month," Scrocca said.
He said Fort Bragg's requests typically average between 10 percent and 30 percent more than training requirements, because it's assumed that weather, maintenance issues or other unforeseen circumstances will sideline planes and jumpers.
"We average a 75 percent success rate, so even when supported with 10,000 chutes, we only expect to exit 7,500 chutes," he said.
While most of the Air Force support to Fort Bragg is coordinated through the Joint Air Operations/Army Airborne Training program, Small said the Air Force partners with Fort Bragg outside that program regularly "to execute large-scale exercises all over the world."
"The most recent of which, exercises Swift Response and Central Accord, saw dozens of mobility airlifters and tankers moving hundreds of 82nd Airborne soldiers to Europe and Africa," Small said. "Air Mobility Command recognizes the critical global response capability our partnership with Fort Bragg provides the nation, and we are proud of our role in that relationship."
But not even that support goes off without a hitch.
That struggle for working aircraft was highlighted last month, when nine C-17s were planned to shuttle paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg to Poland for a multinational airborne operation meant to demonstrate the nation's ability to deploy quickly, anywhere in the world.
Ultimately, only six C-17s left Fort Bragg, with one plane scratched for maintenance issues and two others involved in a near-collision after one C-17 experienced an "engine mishap" during takeoff.
Officials said pilots acted quickly to avoid disaster, but ultimately the two planes were unable to make the mission.
Tillis said those sort of unforeseen circumstances are why having dedicated aircraft on Fort Bragg is so important.
"Airplanes break. Weather happens. Flight crews get sick," he said.
When that happens, the end result is less training for paratroopers who may be asked to deploy on short notice, anywhere in the world.
"Fort Bragg leadership has absolutely expressed concern," Tillis said. "In this scenario, the Army is the customer. They are buying readiness and safety, but the Air Force isn't selling."
"That's unacceptable," he said. "That's not how to train our troops."
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