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U.S. Air Force, Air Guard Lock Horns Over Cuts

Mar. 12, 2012 - 05:34AM   |  
By KATE BRANNEN and MARCUS WEISGERBER   |   Comments
The U.S. Air Force has said that it will cancel the C-27J program.
The U.S. Air Force has said that it will cancel the C-27J program. (U.S. Air Force)
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As the U.S. Air Force goes head-to-head with the Air National Guard and governors from around the country, all eyes are watching to see how the Air Force fares in its effort to shed reserve capabilities as it deeply cuts spending.

So far, the Air Force has taken heat not only over its plan to cut Air Guard force structure and aircraft, but also the tactics it’s using to make its case on Capitol Hill.

For example, a briefing by an Ohio Air Guard captain being circulated inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill makes the case that the Air Force inflated the life-cycle costs of the C-27 transport program as one of the justifications to cancel the effort, which was intended for the Air National Guard.

Guard sources said the move is the latest misstep the Air Force has made in crafting and now defending its budget plan, which cuts 3,900 active-duty, 5,100 Guard and 900 reserve airmen. Air Force leadership, in a statement, said the Guard and active forces worked together on the plan.

This is all happening as the country’s adjutants general — the leaders of the Air and Army Guard within their states — were scheduled to meet in Washington over the weekend for the annual spring meeting of the board of directors of the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS).

The board meeting is a chance for the adjutants general to reinforce their opposition to the Air Force’s plan and vow to do everything they can, working with Congress, to reverse it, said Army Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, the adjutant general for Delaware and chairman of the NGAUS board of directors, in a March 9 interview.

The Army is watching this fight closely. It wants to see if the Air Force will get away with drastically reducing its Guard structure, one Army source said. A lot is at stake in this first round of fighting, and the lessons that emerge from it will shape where the Army decides to cut its force structure, the source said.

“I think the Army is looking out there to see how the Air Force fares before they take a run at us,” Vavala said.

The Air Force’s plans have drawn the ire of almost all of the country’s governors, who asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a Feb. 29 letter, to reconsider the proposed Air Guard cuts.

Opposition is so strong that the Council of Governors — an organization that includes governors from across the country, as well as DoD leaders — has taken the unusual step of developing an alternative proposal for how the Air Force can make its cuts. The price tag for the proposal, which remains under tight wraps, is being worked out by the Air National Guard staff and Headquarters Air Force staff, Air National Guard head Lt. Gen. Harry “Bud” Wyatt said on Capitol Hill March 7.

The Council of Governors, which includes nine state leaders, was created to give the states access and a voice with the Defense Department, Vavala said. Obviously, the Air Force did not include them in their deliberations, he said.

“Right now, there is active negotiation between the National Governors Association and the Department of the Air Force on this plan to take the Guard down,” Vavala said. “We’re hoping to see some movement.”

The C-27J is one piece of this larger picture, he said.

“It’s not rocket science to know that Ohio is upset about the loss of the C-27 and actually, as a taxpayer, I’m offended by it too,” Vavala said.

The Ohio Guard operates the C-27J in Afghanistan. It is the only unit that has used the plane in combat.

“Here, we’ve got a brand new airframe that’s already proven its ability to fly that last tactical mile and we’re going to send it to the boneyard. Talk about flawed logic, that’s got to be paramount,” Vavala said.

Air Force officials have said the decision to cancel C-27J was driven by a shift in strategy and dropping budgets, adding that they can meet mission requirements with their existing fleet of C-130 and C-17 transports.

But C-27J supporters say the smal-ler planes are uniquely capable of reaching units in austere locations.

A 37-page briefing by Ohio Air National Guard Capt. Dave Lohrer contends the Air Force has intentionally inflated the life-cycle costs of the C-27J in documents provided to Congress to help justify the service’s decision to cancel the program. The aircraft is built by L-3 Communications and Italian firm Alenia Aermacchi.

In comparing the twin-engine aircraft to the larger four-engine C-130, the Air Force used worst-case scenarios to boost the C-27J’s lifecycle costs by hundreds of millions of dollars per year, the briefing says.

Air Force leadership, which has spent the past month defending its decision to cancel the C-27J program during congressional hearings, has repeatedly said the service could not afford to fly and maintain the fleet.

“The C-27 life-cycle cost over 25 years is $308 million an aircraft,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 28, using the number Lohrer questions in his briefing. “For the C-130J, it’s $213 million per aircraft. For the C-130H, it’s $185 million per aircraft.”

The briefing by Lohrer states that the Air Force inflated the number of crew and maintenance personnel needed to operate the C-27J. The briefing contends that fewer airmen are needed when compared with the C-130, which needs a flight engineer and navigator.

The Guard contends the Air Force factored an additional 53 people into its analysis, adding more than $112 million to the life-cycle cost estimate. Air Force officials at the Pentagon were huddling last week to counter Lohrer’s analysis, sources said.

When asked for comment, an Air Force spokeswoman forwarded a statement attributed to Schwartz.

“Working with our Guard and Reserve leaders, we used a balanced approach to adjust our Total Force end strength while maintaining the ability to execute strategic guidance. Our Total Force programmed reductions follow detailed assessments of future conflict scenarios and rotational requirements consistent with the new strategic guidance.”

Guard leaders dispute that, saying that while Air National Guard representatives sit in on high-level Air Force budget meetings, they are outnumbered in voting on plans.

“We don’t feel that we were part of the Air Force’s discussions, and we weren’t able to input the fact that our Air National Guard is the country’s most economical force,” Vavala said. “Why would you want to divest yourselves of a battle-proven force that’s got all of this experience and can do it at a fraction of the cost of the active component?

“Don’t forget, the active services didn’t want National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Craig McKinley on the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Vavala said. The Guard won that fight with Congress, which made the Guard leader a member of the advisory group in the latest defense authorization act.

While the case mounts against the Air Force’s cuts to the Air Guard, the service is looking to back up the analysis that supports its plans.

The Wall Street Journal reported March 7 that the Air Force had commissioned a Rand Corp. study that supports its claim that Guard units are not necessarily cheaper than the active-duty Air Force.

Asked about the C-27J briefing, the Air Force forwarded a copy of the Rand study to Defense News.

Staff writer Jill Laster contributed to this report.

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