by Michael Lowrey
My latest column for Carolina Journal:
RALEIGH — It’s a decision that on its face seems very strange: The Air Force wants to stop basing transport planes at Pope Field, which is located next door to Fort Bragg, home of the Army’s famed 82nd Airborne Division.
The unit in question is the 440th Airlift Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit that flies C-130H tactical transport planes. Absent congressional action, the unit soon will be inactivated.
As Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., put it to the McClatchy Washington Bureau, “Why on Earth we would jeopardize the training and readiness in that context — the only place on the planet where we do that? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
There is a certain perverse logic behind the Pentagon’s actions — and it highlights the need for another round of Base Closure and Realignment Commission actions and a serious rethinking of the role of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve going forward.
Every generation of military aircraft is both more advanced and more expensive than its predecessor. The result is that we don’t replace planes on a one-for-one basis, and haven’t for decades. While this is especially true for fighter jets, it also applies to military cargo aircraft.
And if you have fewer planes, eventually you need fewer airfields to base them. Which speaks to the role of the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard in 2015. The original idea behind the guard and reserve was sound enough. When established after World War II, there were plenty of experienced military pilots who wanted to continue serving their country and plenty of reasonably modern military aircraft available.
Nearly 70 years later, the Air Force is struggling to keep all of its existing reserve and National Guard units active. Not all units have their own manned planes — some share them with regular Air Force units while others operate drones.
And the Pentagon lacks authority outside of BRAC to eliminate guard and reserve units that aren’t located on active-duty bases. Nowhere is the issue of the role of the reserve and guard more important than with the C-130 fleet.
The Air Force currently has 318 aircraft, only a third of them serving with the regular Air Force. The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve operate the other two-thirds. By 2019, the Air Force would like to reduce its C-130 transport fleet to 300 planes, with guard and reserve units retiring older C-130H aircraft.
So why is the 440th Airlift Wing the odd unit out? A recent Air Force report on C-130 basing states that “the additional $116 million in savings generated by closing the stand-alone wing along with the wing’s C-130s made closing the 440 AW the most cost-effective way to eliminate eight excess C-130s.” The report also says that the Air Force can meet training needs at Fort Bragg without a C-130 unit.
The report ignores the big picture, what in BRAC is called “military value,” a numeric calculation of how well a base performs a particular task. In the last (2005) BRAC round, Pope Field received the highest military value rating in the transport aircraft category of any base, active or reserve, that then housed C-130s.
So even though a C-130 unit should be based in Fayetteville to serve Fort Bragg, under existing rules the Air Force must eliminate units at active duty bases first.
We need another BRAC round to ensure that military aircraft are based properly. At the same time, the roles of the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard need to be reconsidered in an era when we just don’t have enough planes for them to fly.