House bill aims to keep C-130s in Texas

After three months of trying to persuade the Air Force not to transfer eight C-130 Hercules aircraft from Fort Worth to Great Falls, Mont., a House subcommittee appears ready to try to stop the move with legislation.

The House version of the defense appropriations bill overall is a stark repudiation of the Air Force and Defense Department proposal to mothball 151 Air National Guard aircraft, cut 5,000 personnel and move dozens more airplanes across the country, a proposal that would strip Texas of a major asset for dealing with natural disasters. The bill was released Monday before today's meeting of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to offer and discuss amendments.

The bill includes $589 million to "pause" retirements and reassignments of Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve aircraft until Congress and the Government Accountability Office review cost-benefit analyses of the proposals and $1.5 billion to restore "unrealistic cuts" to facilities and base operations force-wide.

The House version of the bill would appropriate $519.2 billion in defense funding for fiscal 2013, $3.1 billion more than President Barack Obama's budget request. The House version would also spend more than the version in the Senate, led by Democrats. Both bills are in initial stages.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who led congressional opposition to the transfer of the Air National Guard aircraft from Naval Air Station Fort Worth, told Air Force Secretary Michael Donley in March that Congress would likely buck the Air Force if it did not satisfy questions from her and other members of states affected by the plans.

"The Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, of which I'm a member, gave the Air Force every opportunity to explain their decision regarding gutting the Air National Guard," Granger said in a statement Monday. "The Air Force either could not or would not provide us with a reasonable justification. The language in the Defense Appropriations bill is a testament to the importance of the Air National Guard and their support in Congress."

A spokesman for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she was working with Sen. John Cornyn "to explore different legislative options and find a solution" for an "ill-advised transfer" with "severe consequences for our state's disaster response."

The dispute between the Air Force and Congress is both local and broadly national: It involves dozens of coveted Air National Guard squadrons in states across the union. In the case of Fort Worth and Texas, at risk are the four-engine C-130s flown by the 136th Airlift Wing, an Air Guard unit that can be mobilized by the Defense Department for war or Gov. Rick Perry for state emergencies.

It is also a rare case of Democrats and Republicans being equally outraged.

The Council of Governors has vigorously opposed the Air Force plan, and every member of the Texas congressional delegation has signed a letter opposing the Air Force proposal to move the aircraft to a Guard base in Great Falls.

The Air Force wants to transfer them in a nationwide reshuffling of active, reserve and Guard forces to cope with a reduced budget, a burden being required of all the armed services. The Guard would absorb more cuts than active forces, but service leaders say active forces cannot continue shrinking and sustain their ability to deploy.

Within the Guard, the Air Force wants to retire some aircraft, mostly fighters. In some cases, it doesn't want to buy certain aircraft. In other cases, the service is seeking to transfer aircraft out of the active duty and into the Guard to lessen the blow on states. Every state usually gets one Air Guard outfit.

The Air Force isn't seeking to shut down the 136th Airlift Wing; instead, it wants to turn it into a reconnaissance wing that flies MC-12 Libertys. But commanders in the Texas National Guard and political leaders say that removing the C-130s will severely degrade disaster response in Texas and the entire Gulf Coast, where the planes are used to move supplies and evacuate people.

Granger, Hutchison, Cornyn and others have also questioned Air Force leaders on spending. The Air Force said it will cost an estimated $86 million to build new facilities in Montana, alter facilities in Fort Worth and retrain two squadrons on new aircraft.

No one from the Air Force has answered the Star-Telegram's questions regarding how the spending meshes with its reduced budget.

"As I have said from the very beginning, we have to look at each of these decisions very carefully, and the Air Force was never able to provide Congress with a cost-benefit analysis or explain how this helps our disaster response efforts on the Gulf Coast," Granger said in her statement. "We said that if the Air Force could not get us the right information, then we would correct this legislatively."