FORT WORTH — Fierce opposition to an Air Force proposal to permanently ship a squadron of Texas Air National Guard C-130s from Fort Worth to Montana continues to blossom across the Gulf Coast.
The Gulf states' governors -- Rick Perry in Texas, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Phil Bryant in Mississippi, Robert Bentley in Alabama and Rick Scott in Florida -- sent a letter to President Barack Obama this week, requesting that he step in and alter the Air Force's plans to take "away a powerful airlift asset for saving the lives of Gulf Coast States' citizens" during natural disasters.
A growing chorus in Congress is also pointedly questioning Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, as they make the rounds of committee hearings. One Capitol Hill staff member said "there will not be a hearing where they will not be questioned by a Texan or Gulf Coast representative."
At Tuesday's hearing of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, challenged Donley and Schwartz to produce a cost-benefit analysis, if one was done, and to provide all the costs associated with the aircraft transfer. Granger said she estimates the cost at $100 million but said she hasn't gotten a number from the Air Force.
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"The hearing today was for the budget of the Air Force," Granger said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. "We asked questions about their plan, and they can't provide reasonable explanations as to why they made their decisions. That makes me angry."
As part of its restructuring and realignment, the Air Force has proposed decommissioning, cutting or moving aircraft, personnel and squadrons in the active duty, reserves and Air Guard in the next few years. The Air Force, like all of the military, is struggling to come up with cuts forced by reduced budgets.
One of the moves would affect eight C-130 Hercules aircraft in the Texas Air National Guard's 136th Airlift Wing, based at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth. The transport planes would move in two years to Great Falls, Mont., which is losing its F-15 fighters. The 136th wing would then receive nine to 11 MC-12 Liberty planes, which gather intelligence.
Because the 136th belongs to the Air National Guard, Perry can call it up within hours for disasters in Texas or neighboring states. If the planes are moved, no Gulf state would have Air Guard C-130s. Federal military forces needed for a disaster have to be mobilized by the Defense Department, a process that takes days, officials said.
The unit's C-130s have become regular players during Gulf storms, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Ike and Gustav in 2008. Military and political leaders say MC-12s are not practical for disasters because they cannot carry passengers or supplies.
The Gulf states' governors bypassed Air Force leadership and went straight to the White House with their complaints.
"Texas and the Gulf Coast are under constant threat of hurricanes, wildfires and floods," they wrote in the letter. "These C-130s have answered the call to support Gulf Coast States to counter these threats at a moment's notice. ... Mr. President, it makes no sense to move the assets of a perfectly functioning and experienced unit that has supported us well to establish the exact same capability in a state with none of this experience or any ties to the states that traditionally require these assets for emergency response."
Texas' two senators and 32 congressional representatives, Democrats and Republicans alike, sent a letter last week to Donley about their concerns.
Granger has focused her criticism on the costs of the move, contending that the Air Force's justification for savings hasn't been proved by analysis. She also demanded answers by the end of this week or "an explanation, in writing, detailing why this information either cannot or will not be provided."
The Texas congressional delegation believes that the Air Force will have to spend $80 million on infrastructure improvements to the Air Guard base in Montana and $20 million more to retrain two wings' pilots and maintenance personnel on new aircraft.
"I know Montana does not have the hangars necessary to house C-130s and the Montana pilots will have to be trained to fly the C-130s," Granger said in the hearing. "The committee deserves to know how many additional tax dollars you intend to spend on military construction, operations and maintenance, and other funding necessary to transition the C-130s to Montana."
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