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Star Telegram: Texas delegation opposes plan to move aircraft from Fort Worth

February 28, 2012
Article

By Chris Vaughn

FORT WORTH -- The Texas congressional delegation, led by U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, is mobilizing in an attempt to scuttle the Air Force's plan to move Air National Guard C-130 Hercules transport aircraft from Fort Worth to Montana, which military and political leaders say will leave the Gulf Coast vulnerable during disasters and hurricanes.

The letter, written by Granger and sent to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley on Tuesday, was signed by both Texas senators and all 32 congressional representatives, Democrats and Republicans alike. The letter said moving the aicraft not only would weaken disaster response in Texas, but would waste $100 million in construction and training costs.

"At a time when the entire federal government, to include the Department of Defense, is making significant budget cuts, the unnecessary cost to taxpayers in military construction, additional training and operational requirements is unacceptable and ill advised," the letter stated.

Granger and U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn have requested a personal meeting with Donley to discuss the issue.

The Air Force plan, part of its Fiscal Year 2013 budget request, is to transform the 136th Airlift Wing from a transport unit to a reconnaissance wing that flies MC-12 Liberty aircraft, which are smaller turboprops equipped with full-motion video and intelligence-gathering equipment. The wing is based at Naval Air Station Fort Worth.

The eight C-130s would be moved in two years to an Air National Guard facility in Great Falls, Mont., which is losing its F-15 fighters.

The Air Guard is absorbing the brunt of the aircraft drawdown within the overall Air Force, a move about which 49 of the nation's governors have signaled their disapproval. The governors sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday, outlining their opposition to "the disproportionate cuts" to the National Guard.

A spokeswoman for the National Guard in Washington, D.C., said that she could not answer questions in detail. But the transfer of aircraft to Montana "was developed in response to the new Department of Defense strategic guidance, as well as reduced funding across the services.

"Analysis further shaped the proposal to ensure the total force continues to fulfill the Air Force's surge requirements" and "maintain the balance between active and reserve components."

Like all of the military services, the Air Force is trying to shed billions of dollars a year.

But top leaders of the Texas Air National Guard, as well as Gov. Rick Perry and members of Congress, say moving the C-130s out of Texas would have dramatic consequences during natural disasters. The National Guard is the only arm of the military that can respond to the wishes of governors and is typically among the first responders during hurricanes, tropical storms and wildfires.

Guard leaders say it can take days for federal assets to arrive at a major storm, versus hours for the National Guard, which also has the ability to respond pre-emptively, based on governor requests. Texas has emergency agreements in place with many of the states in the region.

The Texas-based C-130s are the only such Guard aircraft in the Gulf of Mexico region. The 136th aircraft have flown 423 storm response sorties and hauled 939 tons of supplies in the Gulf Coast for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Gustav and Ike in 2008, the letter stated.

Among the signees was Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, who said Tuesday that the C-130s "are critical for disaster relief along the hurricane-prone Texas coast."

Of those that represent portions of North Texas, Reps. Joe Barton, R-Arlington, Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, and Bill Flores, R-Bryan, were among the signers.

"Removing the C-130s from Texas will put this area in danger, increase operational costs and waste large amounts of taxpayer dollars," Farenthold told the Star-Telegram in an email.

Granger and Hutchison have both zeroed in on the financial costs of the Air Force's decision, trying to undercut the military's argument that it is being done as part of the budget-slashing process.

The Air Force has requested $3 million in the FY13 budget for temporary C-130 shelters in Montana and has budgeted $80 million for instructure at the Montana installation in future years, according to the congressional letter. Additionally, because it takes two years to re-train pilots and mechanics on new aircraft, the Air Force has budgeted $20 million for training costs, according to Granger.

There are also unquantifable costs for having two squadrons unavailable for deployment during that time, she said.

Thus far, Granger said Air Force leaders have been less than responsive at answering questions.

"In the situation we're in, decisions should not be made this way," Granger said. "You can't move this group over here and move that group over there and play with this. A cost analysis should be done for each move you want to make."