WASHINGTON — Three top Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee are taking the Air Force to task over a decision to base new C-130Js in Georgia, a move they contend could influence the state’s upcoming Senate runoff races.

On Nov. 24, the Air Force selected four Air National Guard bases to receive 24 C-130J cargo planes, including Savannah Air National Guard Base in Georgia.

But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., raised concerns that the Air Force is “playing politics” by announcing its decision so close to the runoff elections — especially since the service initially planned on selecting only three locations and Congress has not yet funded enough aircraft to be stationed a fourth site.

“In this instance, the timing and decision to include Savannah, GA in the announcement, when Georgia is focused on Senate runoff elections, raises questions about the Secretary’s motives,” Smith said in a statement.

“The Air Force did not need to make this decision now — plain and simple — and should delay moving forward with these basing actions until conference negotiations have concluded and the decision is not at risk of being politicized,” he said. “If the Air Force plods ahead, the service runs the risk of undermining the strategic basing process and may force Congress to take action to protect the basing process from being used to potentially influence congressional action or election outcomes.”

However, the Air Force maintains that its decision was motivated by efficiency, not politics.

“Since the Air Force is aware the House and Senate versions of the appropriations bill include additional C-130Js, the Air Force can leverage the exhaustive work already accomplished on the current C-130J basing process for a fourth location, Savannah Air National Guard Base,” said Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek. “Naming the preferred alternatives now allows us to move forward with the environmental impact process without delay, enabling the timely beddown of these C-130Js.”

The Air Force first notified Congress in March that it planned to select three Air National Guard bases to host new C-130J aircraft.

The service considered eight installations: Bradley Air Guard Station in Connecticut, Peoria Air Guard Station in Illinois, Louisville Air Guard Base in Kentucky, Great Falls Air Guard Station in Montana, Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth in Texas, McLaughlin Air National Guard Base in West Virginia, Cheyenne Air Guard Station in Wyoming, and the Georgia location.

But as the Air Force neared its decision this fall, certain lawmakers grew concerned that the service was no longer staying true to its selection criteria, which would have prioritized bases that could host the aircraft without the need for expensive upgrades.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who chairs HASC’s seapower and projection forces subcommittee, said he shared those concerns during phone calls with Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, and Air National Guard director Lt. Gen. Michael Loh.

But the Air Force ended up choosing Louisville ANGB, McLaughlin ANGB, and Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, with eight C-130J aircraft slated to arrive to each base in 2021.

If Congress funds an additional C-130 aircraft in the fiscal year 2021 budget, those will go Savannah.

“The Air Force without the slightest warning added a fourth site, assigning aircraft not yet approved by Congress to be based in Georgia,” Courtney said in a statement. “This surprise move was never once included in the Air Forces basing plans shared with our committee over the last two years, and it taints this process in the midst of a presidential transition and two special elections in Georgia. That frankly does not pass the smell test.”

Likewise, HASC Readiness Subcommittee Chairman John Garamendi, D-Calif., said the basing decision not only “intertwines” with the runoffs but “preempts” ongoing negotiations over the defense appropriations and the annual defense policy bills. He called for the decision to be reversed and postponed.

“The questionable timing and irregular process has undermined my confidence that this decision was made objectively and without political influence,” Garamendi said in a statement. “I strongly urge the Air Force to rescind this decision and delay this announcement until January. Doing so will allow the Air Force to make its decision until after conference negotiations have been completed and remove itself from the Georgia runoffs and other politically charged circumstances.”

Sen. David Perdue, a Georgia Republican whose fate rests on the results of the runoffs in January, immediately hailed the basing decision and pointed to his own work trying to garner additional resources for the state’s military installations, which include Robins Air Force Base and Fort Benning.

“This is extremely exciting news for Savannah’s airmen and the entire coastal community,” said Perdue, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We’ve made it a top priority to modernize and upgrade military equipment in order to preserve our competitive advantage around the world, and the 165th Airlift Wing is a critical component of that effort.”

Perdue was forced into a Jan. 5 runoff with Democrat Jon Ossoff after neither candidate received 50 percent of the vote during the elections earlier this month. If both Perdue and the other Georgia Senator, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, fail to win their races, the Democrats will have the two seats needed to clinch control of the Senate

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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