WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan this week got a provision added to a military funding bill that would put the brakes on the inactivation of the 440th Airlift Wing at Fort Bragg.
Hagan is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which spent two days in closed hearings Wednesday and Thursday to prepare the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 for a vote of the full Senate. She announced on Friday that her proposal became part of the bill.
Hagan’s proposal will force the Air Force to explain its justification for deactivating the unit and give Congress more time to evaluate the decision. The Air Force report would be reviewed by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan agency that investigates how the government spends taxpayer dollars.
Deactivation of the 440th was part of President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget proposal.
“I staunchly oppose the Air Force’s decision to inactivate the 440th Airlift Wing, which would adversely affect the readiness of units at Fort Bragg, and my amendment will prevent the Air Force from implementing this rushed proposal without proper independent and congressional review,” Hagan said in a statement.
She added that she has asked the Air Force for analysis and cost comparisons in recent months. “But instead of thoughtful evaluations, I have received the same recycled arguments,” she said. “The Air Force has yet to provide a compelling military or strategic rationale for inactivating the 440th and should not be allowed to move forward with their plan.”
The Senate is expected to vote on the National Defense Authorization Act after Memorial Day. A conference committee will meet to iron out differences between House and Senate versions of the bill. The House passed the bill this week without a provision that would have blocked the deactivation of the 440th that Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Republican from Dunn whose district includes Fort Bragg, had tried to get included.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem said he was “in close communications with my delegation colleagues on this matter and I remain hopeful that something can be accomplished in the coming months.”
1,100 jobs at stake
Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson said he and other local leaders asked members of their congressional delegation to help keep the 440th at Fort Bragg. Robertson said it’s important both for military readiness and local economic benefits.
“At the very least it’s a temporary reprieve from where we were,” he said.
“It’s going to put the pressure back on the Air Force to legitimize the numbers they’re using to say that it makes sense,” he added. “No one in this community believes that it does. It’s fuzzy math to us.”
The 440th Airlift Wing supports the training and the work of the 82nd Airborne Division and other units at Fort Bragg. It provides 23 percent of Fort Bragg’s paratrooper training mission.
Its 12 C-130H2 aircraft are used to transport military personnel and supplies and to fly wounded soldiers to treatment in the United States.
The staffing of the 440th mainly is done by 1,100 traditional Reservists. Some commute from other states for their periods of reserve duty, but about 990 of them live and hold civilian jobs throughout North Carolina.
The 440th’s economic impact is about $78 million annually, according to a fact sheet provided by 440th spokesman Adam Luther.
Joy Thrash, executive director of the North Carolina Defense Business Association in Fayetteville, said her organization sent letters to members of the North Carolina congressional delegation asking for help to stop the deactivation.
The group is concerned about the economic impact to businesses around Fort Bragg, the need for North Carolina members of the Reserves to have to decide whether they would leave the state in order to continue with reserve duty, and questions about how a need for bringing in aircraft from outside the state would affect the ability of the 82nd to deploy quickly, Thrash said.
She said there also were questions about the cost savings of moving the planes to another base and having to return them to Pope Army Air Field when needed for training there.
The defense business group said that the Army has spent more than $57 million on maintenance and repairs to the air field since 2011, including nearly $10 million that was spent in 2012 on construction to prepare for bringing in newer C-130J aircraft. It said that a C-130 simulator building also was under construction.
Ellmers effort rejected
Ellmers on Monday offered an amendment to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 that would have prevented the Department of Defense from spending money to deactivate the 440th. It was co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. David Price of Chapel Hill and Mike McIntyre of Lumberton, whose districts also include areas near the base.
But the House Rules Committee rejected the amendment.
Afterward, on the House floor Wednesday night, Ellmers said she had introduced the amendment “because of the incredible support the 440th Airlift Wing provides to our military and the necessity of its mission in maintaining readiness.” She said she’d continue to fight to keep it.
Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, responded to her remarks, saying that the issue highlighted the difficulty Congress faces as the size of the military budget has been decreased and sequestration remains the law. He said the budget “doesn’t provide sufficient funding to meet the requirements identified in our nation’s defense strategy.”