U.S. Rep. Kay Granger told Air Force Secretary Michael Donley in a meeting Thursday that if the Air Force does not scrap its plan to move a fleet of C-130 transport aircraft from Fort Worth to Montana or provide more justification, she will work to stop its implementation legislatively.
Granger, R-Fort Worth, and U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, both R-Texas, pressed Donley for answers on why the Air Force wants to send planes assigned to the Texas Air National Guard's 136th Airlift Wing to Great Falls, Mont. They also wanted to know how much it would cost to move them and prepare the Montana airfield for the larger aircraft.
"There was no new information and no answers to questions that have been asked repeatedly," Granger said afterward. "I asked twice, 'When can we have answers? Because I have to tell you, there will come a point at which Congress will resolve this.'"
Rarely have eight bulky four-engine aircraft created such a stir throughout Gulf Coast states as those in the 136th wing, a unit of 1,000 people based at Naval Air Station Fort Worth.
In its fiscal 2013 budget request this year, the Air Force announced that it would like to transfer the aircraft to Montana and turn the 136th into a reconnaissance unit that flies MC-12 intelligence-gathering planes.
Nationally, the Air Force is proposing a major realignment to cope with upcoming budget cuts: retiring 286 aircraft, shutting down some squadrons and shifting some aircraft to the reserves. The Air Guard is absorbing the largest share of cuts and realignments.
A spokeswoman called the C-130 move necessary because of an overall drawdown of the aircraft.
"The new Defense Strategic Guidance ... reduced the overall requirement for intratheater airlift," said Rose Richeson, spokeswoman for the National Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. "To achieve maximum effectiveness and efficiency with this smaller intratheater fleet, the Air Force simultaneously conducted a broad mission leveling and realignment across the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130 fleets."
The Air Force's decision met with immediate opposition from political leaders and officers in the Texas National Guard over the costs of adding infrastructure to the Montana base and taking two units out of commission for up to two years to learn new aircraft.
Concerns were also raised that the plan would degrade disaster response in Texas and neighboring hurricane-prone states. The National Guard, unlike the active military, can respond to natural disasters at the request of a governor.
Moving the planes would leave no Air Guard C-130s in any Gulf Coast state. The closest ones would then be in Little Rock and Nashville.
Critical during disasters
Officials with the Texas Air National Guard have repeatedly said that time is of the essence before a hurricane's landfall or immediately after a disaster. The much smaller MC-12s are not nearly as valuable as C-130s during hurricanes, floods or wildfires, officials said.
"The C-130 is not the most glamorous platform, but in a state as large as Texas and a region as big as the Gulf, they are critical to getting stuff and people where they need to go quickly," Brig. Gen. Ken Wisian, commander of the Texas Air National Guard, said several weeks ago.
The entire Texas congressional delegation -- two senators and 32 House representatives -- sent Donley a letter in February with their concerns and questions, and sent a follow-up letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week.
Granger, as well as Reps. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and John Culberson, R-Houston, serves on the House Appropriations Committee. Cornyn serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Hutchison on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Donley has not responded in writing and did not respond at the meeting Thursday, Granger said.
Govs. Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Phil Bryant of Mississippi, Robert Bentley of Alabama and Rick Scott of Florida also sent a letter to President Barack Obama this month.
Air Guard officers told Granger in a recent hearing that making a suitable home for the C-130s in Montana would cost $75 million to $100 million. Granger said Donley did not confirm that figure, and the Air Force has not provided a figure to the Star-Telegram. Granger said she cannot understand how the transfer will save money.
"The Air Force still can't provide a cost-benefit analysis, and I've asked for one numerous times," Granger said. "There have been no savings ever mentioned by the Air Force as a reason for this move. None."
'A political decision'
Hutchison, in a statement to the Star-Telegram after Thursday's meeting, said the proposal "would waste precious human and financial resources."
"The costs for retraining the F-15 pilots [in Montana] for the C-130 mission would add four to six months of delay and cost millions," Hutchison said. "But the basic question is, Why does the Air Force think this is a good idea? We received no answer."
Richeson, at the National Guard headquarters, said the Air Force "made the hard choices to closely align with the new strategic guidance by trading size for quality."
Granger said she believes that the C-130s were promised to Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both D-Mont., because the Air Force had already decided to take away the F-15 fighters based in Great Falls. Tester is up for re-election in November.
"I think it's a political decision," she said. "Everything leads to that because there are no other answers."
Baucus and Tester wrote a letter to Panetta last week, urging him to move the C-130s to Montana because the region has no similar aircraft and "because our disaster response needs are great."
"Over several years, we have worked with the Defense Department, the Air Force and the National Guard Bureau to ensure that Great Falls retained a manned flying mission in the event that the Air Force proceeded with the relocation of Montana's F-15 mission," the letter stated. "We look forward to your continued support of this decision and to working closely with you until the last of these C-130s lands in Great Falls."
Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said this month that the service is reconsidering the transfer, but Donley gave no such indication Thursday, Granger said.
"When you have the entire Texas delegation, Republicans and Democrats, when you have the governors of all the Gulf states, when you have the delegations of Mississippi and Florida all standing firm, saying, 'We need these planes,' there usually is a reconsideration," she said. "That is not happening."
To read more, visit www.star-telegram.com.