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The Future of the 122nd

Do defense budget cuts fall too heavily on the Air National Guard?

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-03-15


Several months ago, when President Obama issued his budget request to Congress for 2013, the portion detailing defense spending managed to do something which at times seemed impossible during the past year or so of political brinksmanship in Washington: unite Democrats and Republicans.

At last, everyone could agree: there was some item in the defense budget that they didn’t like. And there were plenty items to choose from. In an effort to reduce costs by $487 billion over the next decade, the budget calls for a cut of around 100,000 troops; cuts or delays in several weapons systems programs; and asks to study the possibility of closing more military bases.

It was this last item that caught the interest of people in Northeast Indiana, including several lawmakers, giving rise to fears that Fort Wayne’s 122 Air National Guard Base, “the Blacksnakes,” might close. Though it quickly became clear that closure was not on the agenda, the possibility remains that there could be a change in the 122nd’s mission and cuts to personnel.

The budget for the Air National Guard is part of the Air Force, and the current Air Force proposal making its slow way through the budgetary approval process recommends that the 122nd replace its current A-10 jets (there are 20 on the base) with between 9 - 11 MC-12s, a newer propeller plane used for gathering and transmitting intelligence data. It also calls for cutting 152 jobs from the base — 85 full-timers, and 67 traditional members, according to Colonel David Augustine, commander of the 122 Fighter Wing.

Colonel Augustine is quick to point out a couple things. The first is that what is going on right now in Washington is just a budgetary proposal process — he’s heard some sources portray it as “a major fight” — and he won’t know the outcome until… well, until he knows the outcome. “As we speak, everything goes through a congressional process, and that’ll happen for the next couple months, and then we’ll find out what the final agreement is going to be,” he says. “Not unlike any budgetary year in the past, things get changed around. Some things make it thorough the entire process unscathed.”

“So, I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Either the Air Force will modify their proposal somewhat, or they’ll stick to their guns, and it’ll go through the full vetting process.”

The second is that these spending cuts are the result of some seemingly arbitrary decision. Once again, this is a budget process, it happens every year, and the recommendations are a result of a lot of people looking at a lot of different factors and coming to a determination. “The President issues national military strategy, which guides the services in making decisions,” Colonel Augustine explains. “In this strategy, there has been a shift from a counter-insurgency environment in Afghanistan to a Pacific-based threat. So all the services — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard — they have to react to that national military strategy. Each service comes up with a plan, and within that plan they come up with force structures.”

There are only so many dollars to go around, he adds. “These are hard times economically. Certainly every department has to be part of the process, and certainly the military is a part of that solution.”

But while this may seem like business as usual, or at least tough measures during a time when reducing costs has become an issue, what is different in this particular budget is that there is a significant impact on the Air National Guard. In the last couple months, the 122nd, with the help of many community lawmakers and business leaders, has been working to get the word out about the economic and social effect that some of these changes might have on Northeast Indiana.

And something similar has been happening all across the nation, in all 50 states, with critics of the Air Force’s budget request claiming that the Air National Guard shoulders a disproportionate amount of the cuts.

In a letter written to the House Armed Services Committee in late February, commanders of the National Guard in all 50 states and four territories expressed their concern about the Air Force’s budget recommendations. “It is counterintuitive that the Air National Guard, which comprises 21% of the uniformed members of the Total Air Force, would bear 59% of the total aircraft cuts and approximately six times the per capita personnel cuts,” the letter stated.

In addition, 46 governors — plus the governors of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam — sent their own letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, stating: “As Commanders-in-Chief, we appreciate the need to reorganize, restructure and modernize the military to meet new threats and economic realities. We also understand the need for cost-effective means to achieve these goals. Given these realities, we must oppose the proposal that the Air National Guard absorb 59% of the total aircraft budget reductions and approximately six times the per capita personnel reductions.”

A line in the governors’ letter above — “the need for cost-effective means to achieve these goals” — goes to the heart of the issue. Few people will deny that there need to be cuts in government spending, of course,
but critics of the Air Force recommendations point to the fact that the Air National Guard has been a model of efficiency, with a proven record of being able to maintain existing aircraft, and provide resources for training airmen, at a fraction of the cost of the Air Force.

Part of the reason the Air National Guard is able to do that, Colonel Augustine explains, is simply the nature of the organization. “We’re a community-based force, so we don’t ‘PCS (Permanent Change of Station) around’ much,” he says. “Now certainly some folks transition to different bases in their career, but the reality is that a lot of folks stay at that unit for their entire career. It’s just a fact. With that, one of the things that Air National Guard units enjoy — not just the 122nd but across the nation — is longevity, which equals higher experience with your pilots and maintenance personnel. You join and you stay there for a long period of time. And experience matters.”

A member of the Air Force on active duty will transfer every four years or so. “You keep moving for your entire career, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but what it does yield is a lower experience rating,” Colonel Augustine says. “That’s the beauty of some of the things that we’re trying to do and what the Air Force is trying to do, like ‘active association,’ where the Air Force brings in a hundred or so active duty members to your base, have them stay with you for four years until they PCS on again, and they can enjoy that experience level with the Air National Guard.”

The bottom line: “The Air National Guard is a very efficient work force. The pay and benefits of one active duty member is the equivalent of six-and-a-half guard members. We get about 6% of the Air Force budget and perform 35% of the mission, so there’s a big bang for your buck. There’s a lot of hard work in the Air National Guard, don’t get me wrong, but the efficiency is very high.”

The proposal to replace the 122nd’s current A-10s with around ten MC-12 surveillance craft reflects the change in the overall national defense strategy. Developed in the 70s, the A-10 is a low-flying, slow moving (well, relatively speaking — it can reach speeds of over 400 mph) fighter jet designed to support troops on the ground. Mounted on its nose is the GAU-8/A Avenger, a 30 mm, seven-barrel Gatling gun capable of firing 3,900 rounds per minute, and the A-10 is also capable of delivering a wide range of mixed ordinance. Its body has been designed to handle direct hits from armor piercing and explosive projectiles — the phrase “600 lbs Titanium bathtub” pops up often to describe the cockpit area of the A-10. “It’s the most durable platform that we have in our arsenal to affect the battlefield in favor of our ground forces,” says Colonel Augustine.

The 122nd only took on the A-10 mission a little over three years ago at the request of the Air Force, replacing the 122nd’s legacy fighter, the F-16. At the time, it was thought there would be a little more longevity to the mission. Under the Air Force recommendations, 246 A-10s will stay in the force. The rest go to the Arizona desert outside Tucson where the Air Force parks its legacy aircraft.

The MC-12 looks a lot like — and its design was based on — commercial aircraft like the Hawker Beechcraft Super King Air 350 and Super King 350ER. It’s a manned, twin-engine “spy plane” that provides ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) support to ground forces. The Air Force calls it a “complete collection, processing, analysis and dissemination system” for data, and though it’s only been in use since 2009, it’s gotten very high marks for its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the MC-12 is not a fighter plane, and at a recent public forum, Colonel Ash, the vice commander for the 122nd, was asked how pilots trained to fly jets were going to respond to being asked to fly… well, something with propellers. One pilot answered that, based on a colleague’s testimony, the MC-12 was a pretty nice aircraft (and I suppose the other answer could have been: “We’re military pilots. If it’s our job to fly the MC-12, we’ll fly the MC-12”).

“One of the important things is that we keep a flying mission here,” Colonel Augustine says. “The MC-10 is certainly a flying mission. There’s certainly a business case to be made for taking our current mission to its fruition. But the bottom line is… we’re military servants in a military system, there’s a congressional process, and whatever comes out of that process, we’ll do our best at it and keep moving on. Whatever ends up on this ramp out there, the reality is, we’ll do it right. The 122 will remain a premier flying organization just like we have for the last 67 years.”

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