Congressional report: Fort Bragg's 440th Airlift Wing still on kill list
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: April 15, 2015
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — A long-awaited report to Congress has an expected result: the Air Force is moving forward with plans to shutter Fort Bragg's 440th Airlift Wing.
The "Report on C-130 Force Structure" was mandated by Congress through last year's National Defense Authorization Act.
It was originally due in January but had been delayed before finally being released on Tuesday.
Congress now has 60 days to review the report and potentially take action before the Air Force is permitted to move ahead on its plans.
In the document, Air Force officials laid out its rationale for several changes to the C-130 fleet driven by budget cuts and a need to shrink the fleet from 358 to 300 aircraft.
As expected by local congressional leaders, the report does not change the fate of Fort Bragg's one-star Air Force Reserve unit, which learned it would be deactivated last year.
But the Air Force did give one unit a new lease on life. It outlines a reversal of a decision to close a C-130 squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
In all, the changes to the fleet will save $922 million, according to Air Force officials, through reducing the fleet, right-sizing units and reducing overhead by eliminating the 440th Airlift Wing.
The latter would save $116 million, the report said. Part of those savings will go toward modernizing the C-130 fleet by replacing older planes with newer, more cost-effective models.
The Air Force report said the force had to look for savings in units that would not require Base Realignment and Closure authority to deactivate.
Defense leaders have requested another BRAC for years, but the request has had little traction in Congress.
Without it, the Air Force was unable to reduce overhead by closing stand-alone units, the report said.
Despite being the only unit with planes at Pope Field, the Air Force does not need BRAC approval to close the 440th Airlift Wing after what was then Pope Air Force Base was absorbed into Fort Bragg in 2011.
But that isn't keeping local congressional leaders from fighting to save the unit.
On Tuesday, Rep. Renee Ellmers again took the fight to save the wing to the House Armed Services Committee, which opened its floor to the entire legislative body.
The committee's annual "Member Day" invited representatives from across the nation to bring issues to the group's attention with a chance to influence the annual defense policy bill.
The fight is well known to the committee, according to its chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, who said the group would continue to work with Ellmers to help save the one-star Air Force Reserve unit that flies the only Air Force planes permanently stationed at Fort Bragg.
Sen. Thom Tillis has also recently lobbied on behalf of the unit to Department of Defense officials.
In response to the Air Force's report, he said his questions regarding the rationale behind the deactivation remain unanswered.
Tillis, who has placed a hold on all civilian Department of Defense and Air Force nominees, said he will continue to block those appointments as a result.
"Additionally, I will continue to push for language to be inserted into the  Department of Defense appropriations legislation that prevents the Air Force from relocating aircraft or personnel currently assigned to Pope Airfield," he said. "I will pursue all options available to help stop this strategically flawed plan from being fully implemented."
Since plans to close the unit were first announced last year, the 440th Airlift Wing has been slowly shrinking, limiting its operations.
Officials also have opened a clearing house to help remaining airmen find new positions elsewhere in the Air Force Reserve.
In its report, the Air Force said the closure of the 440th Airlift Wing and the loss of the unit's C-130H model cargo planes would have "no adverse impact" on the ability of the 18th Airborne Corps and 82nd Airborne Division to deploy on short notice and seize foreign airfields through airborne operations.
The report notes that 100 percent of the Global Response Force's deployment requirements are currently met through units stationed outside of Fort Bragg.
But leaders at Fort Bragg have questioned the decision, saying it would negatively impact training.
They've said the 440th Airlift Wing provides familiarity and adaptability unmatched by outside units.
Ellmers said the decision was "shortsighted" and made little sense.
"This ill-conceived proposal comes at a time when our nation is facing growing uncertainty abroad that could require a military response that only forces at Fort Bragg can provide," she said. ".To say that I have serious reservations and concerns regarding this decision is a severe understatement."
At least one member of the committee seemed to share her concerns.
Rep. Rich Nugent, a Florida Republican, questioned the ability of the Air Force to use outside planes for training on Fort Bragg.
Nugent, whose son served at Fort Bragg for six years, said the Air Force already has trouble providing the necessary airlifts for Fort Bragg soldiers. He said some paratroopers waited two days for planes to Haiti after the earthquake there in 2010, when a brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division deployed to support humanitarian efforts.
With no planes permanently based at Fort Bragg's Pope Field, Nugent said he expects those waits to worsen.
The Air Force report said the force "remains committed to supporting U.S. Army airborne training requirements," and said a system already in place would be used to fill Fort Bragg training missions.
That system, the Joint Airborne/Air Transportability Training Joint Management System, currently fills 66 percent of training needs on the nation's largest military installation.
The system supports 100 percent of missions at Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; and other Army installations, according to the report.
But those installations are a fraction of the size and do not have large units of paratroopers like Fort Bragg, which is billed as the home of the Army's airborne and special operations forces.
The Air Force's current plans are in stark opposition to earlier discussions.
Originally, the force would have not only preserved the 440th Airlift Wing, but upgraded its fleet.
As part of the 2013 budget, Air Force officials had planned to instead cut planes from and close the Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station.
According to the Air Force, officials proposed closing the base not through BRAC, but through a different legal authority as part of the 2013 budget.
"Closing Pittsburgh (Air Reserve Station) would have saved significant dollars in the (Air Force Reserve) budget, by eliminating the cost and overhead associated with 8 excess C-130Hs," the Air Force report stated.
But "Congress did not agree" with the Air Force's interpretation of the law that would have allowed such a move and, as part of negotiations with lawmakers, delayed C-130 moves for a year and kept the Pittsburgh base open.
Those same plans would have moved the planes from Keesler to the 440th Airlift Wing.
Now, Keesler's 815th Airlift Squadron will keep its 10 C-130Js.
Those are the newer, more efficient version of C-130H used by the 440th Airlift Wing and would have updated units to better serve Fort Bragg paratroopers.
Tens of millions of dollars were spent to upgrade facilities at Pope Field, but then leaders learned last year the planes would not come and instead, the unit would be closed.
The C-130J planes were to have been redirected to Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, but those plans, according to the report, were scrapped in favor of keeping two C-130J squadrons at Keesler.
The Air Force report said having two such squadrons on the same base would present cost savings.
The report said officials considered retaining the 440th Airlift Wing, too, but ultimately decided the $116 million in savings generated by closing the wing made it the "most cost effective way to eliminate" eight C-130s from their fleet.
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