U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis on Friday said the Air Force is prematurely going ahead with plans to inactivate the 440th Airlift Wing at Fort Bragg by removing airmen from the unit before it completes a required report to Congress.
Military officials said they aren’t moving anyone. Instead, job fairs are beginning so that the reservists who work in the unit have time to try to find new positions, an official said.
The Republican senator, who took office in January, also complained in a statement that he hasn’t been able to get a meeting he’s been asking for with Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. He said he was releasing an official statement through the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which he serves, detailing his efforts to get a meeting. The statement included the questions he would ask her.
The inactivation of the 440th was originally part of President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget. About 1,300 reservists serve there. Most serve on a schedule of one weekend a month and two weeks a year. The 440th provides airlift, airdrop and medical support from Fort Bragg in Fayetteville.
Tillis’ predecessor, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, wrote a provision that was included in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 that requires the Air Force to stop transfer of the airlift wing’s C-130s until it sends a report to Congress outlining the costs and benefits of the move. Congress would then have 60 days to respond.
Tillis opposes the plan to close the airlift wing and he said he was “distressed” that the Air Force appears to be proceeding. Hagan opposed closure as well, along with other members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Tillis said in a statement Friday that he and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., had been trying to set up a meeting with James, the Air Force secretary. His statement said they planned a meeting in February, but it was canceled because of bad weather. A meeting also was canceled due to a change in the scheduling of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about the Air Force this month, where James was testifying.
“Since that time, Air Force schedulers have proffered prospective times for a new Washington meeting when both Senator Burr and I are in North Carolina,” Tillis said in his official statement, which his office sent out as a news release. “We stand ready to meet the secretary in the state if her schedule will not accommodate us in Washington.”
The release was titled, “Tillis demands answers from Air Force on attempt to dismantle 440th Airlift Wing.”
In his statement, Tillis said that “in contravention of the spirit” of the National Defense Authorization Act, “the Air Force has already begun removing airmen from the 440th – before the report has even been provided to Congress, much less Congress having an opportunity to respond.”
He said that an Air Force Reserves spokesman had said that the law said nothing about moving airmen, but was only about the aircraft.
“That does not pass the laugh test unless the Air Force Reserve Command expects the Pope C-130s to be converted to drones – no pilots, no air wing,” Tillis wrote.
Burr said, “This plan to scrap that support makes no sense given the demands on our quick response forces based at Bragg.”
Ann Stefanek, a spokeswoman for the Air Force at the Pentagon, said, “The Air Force anticipates delivering that report to Congress soon and looks forward to meeting with the North Carolina delegation.”
The 440th Airlift Wing has about 1,300 members, including about 400 who are full-time. All 1,300 are typically at the base on drill weekends. During the last drill, which was last weekend, reserve organizations from other places came to a job fair to try to help reservists find new positions, said Maj. Lisa Ray, public affairs officer for the 440th Airlift Wing.
Many of the reservists probably will have to move out of North Carolina if they want to stay in the Air Force Reserves, she said.
The unit also has an online site to help reservists find new jobs. About 300 are looking, and the rest are taking a wait-and-see approach, Ray said.