Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, says he’s lobbying to get the Air Force to change its decision to inactivate the 440th Airlift Wing because it would harm the ability of the Army’s Global Response Force to fly from Fort Bragg to trouble spots in any part of the world in 18 hours or less.
“Why on Earth we would jeopardize the training and readiness in that context – the only place on the planet where we do that? It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Tillis said in an interview following the release of a congressionally mandated Air Force report on its plans for the airlift wing.
The plan to inactivate the air wing, a budget-cutting measure, would save $116 million, according to the Air Force report.
Tillis’ complaints were shared by other state lawmakers, including the state’s senior senator, Republican Richard Burr, as well as Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers.
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“A complete disappointment” and a “terrible strategic decision,” said Burr.
The Air Force “refused to acknowledge the strategic concerns expressed by the entire North Carolina delegation,” said Ellmers.
The report, issued Tuesday, said that after closing the 440th Airlift Wing, training and other missions from Fort Bragg would use a fleet of aircraft flown in from other places.
It said the Air Force plans to reduce its aging C-130 aircraft from 358 to 300 in the 2016 fiscal year and use the cost savings to replace some with C-130Js and modernize the rest. It said there would be “no adverse impact” on the Global Response Force. The force would use C-17s and C-130s that are based in other places rather than at Pope, according to the report.
But Tillis and other lawmakers said that didn’t alleviate their concerns.
“I want to know the methodology and metrics for arriving at this decision,” Tillis said. “They say, ‘Yeah, we’ll get that to you.’ And now I’m hearing that maybe some of that doesn’t exist. So it really undermines my confidence.”
He said his concern was based on the impact on military capabilities, not on the economics and jobs.
“This is about getting our forces prepared to complete the mission that we expect them to be able to complete,” Tillis said, but added, “My heart does go out to the people affected by this. We know they all have jobs through the end of September.”
About 300 of the 1,100 Reservists in the unit have already sought other jobs. Tillis said he’s concerned that if a large number of the remaining 800 also decide to look for Reserve positions elsewhere in the next couple months, the Air Force policy to close the air wing will become irreversible.
Tillis spent three days last week at Fort Bragg with the 440th Airlift Wing and the leadership of the 82nd Airborne, the infantry division of the Army that specializes in parachute landings. The base is also home to Army Special Forces groups.
“To a person they said that (the Air Force plan to inactivate the 440th) will have an impact on their training,” he said.
The freshman senator also has met recently with Air Force officials, who told him that they would close other places and keep the 440th at Pope Army Airfield at Fort Bragg if they had more flexibility. However, statutory or Base Realignment and Closure requirements limited their options, he said.
Tillis said he has proposed an amendment that would provide funding to keep the 440th Airlift Wing in operation for at least a year, which would give time for Congress to look at the readiness concerns. Meanwhile, Ellmers and fellow lawmakers Reps. David Price, a Democrat, and Republicans George Holding, David Rouzer and Richard Hudson supported a funding request in the House to keep the airlift wing open.
Tillis also earlier this month put a hold on all civilian appointments in the Department of Defense and Air Force until he feels he has the answers he needs about the 440th. About 10 nominations are pending in the Armed Services Committee, according to the committee’s website.
Burr said that he would work with others in the state’s congressional delegation “to find a solution that preserves the readiness of our critical airborne, rapid deployment capability.”
On Monday, Ellmers testified before a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, arguing that closing the airlift wing was shortsighted. She said it was the only C-130H wing in the country the Air Force planned to close completely, “and this is occurring at the busiest airfield in the world for training requiring tactical airlift.”
Added Ellmers, “This is a decision that essentially takes the air out of airborne, as planes have been located at Pope since 1954.”