The news that the U.S. Air Force leadership is considering retiring the entire fleet of KC-10 air refueling aircraft, half of which are at Travis Air Force Base, is an unsettling prospect that has far-reaching implications not just to communities, but to the nation’s ability to execute power projection across the globe.
These implications clearly highlight how serious budget pressures are on the Defense Department and how the impasse in Congress over spending priorities and debt control has brought us to this crisis.
The sequester, an agreement made to force cuts if debt reduction was not agreed upon, has forced equal cuts of some $500 billion both in defense and non-defense spending over the coming decade, beginning with this year. Because the cuts were enacted three months into the fiscal year, the severity was even greater in the remaining nine months.
The Air Force is looking for immediate cost savings to offset these cuts.
Implied is that the retirement of aircraft fleets would have to be rather quick, as it at least appears now, if they are to realistically generate near-term savings. Equally to the point, those cuts will continue in 2014 and presumably in the out years. Once you “retire” weapons systems, bringing them back into the inventory would drive unacceptable additional funding requirements.
Civilian furloughs, the grounding of air show demonstrations teams such as the Air Force’s Thunderbirds and the Navy’s Blue Angels, were just the tip of the iceberg. In the Air Force, training was largely curtailed for many flying squadrons. Military readiness, according to the Air Force leadership, has and will continue to suffer. This is a common theme heard not just from the Air Force, but the other services as well.
Aside from the loss of a major mission and accompanying jobs at Travis, the loss of the KC-10 would have a major impact on our nation’s global reach and its ability to carry out strategic national interests in hot spots around the globe. Beyond the obvious reduction in refueling capability to get the front-line weapons systems to the area of conflict, and to sustain operations once there, the KC-10s cargo carrying contribution to the overall mobility capability would also be lost.
The KC-135, the Air Force’s other refueling plane, is now reaching 40-plus years of service and is in need of replacement, but it will be years before that replacement, the KC-46, will be produced and fielded.
In the meantime, elimination of the KC-10 would leave the Department of Defense vulnerable to a single airframe and hence a potential grounding if there is a major structural integrity issue as occurred in 1989, and it would greatly reduce the Air Force’s overall air refueling capacity. Just last year, the Air Force recognized that an expected service life program would extend the life of the KC-10 to 2045 and began a three-year modernization program for all 59 KC-10 aircraft in the inventory.
Air refueling has become an essential extension of global reach from extending the legs of cargo transport aircraft to allowing Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and allied combat aircraft to remain airborne over the battle area – in essence controlling the battlefield whether prosecuting actual combat operations or policing a no-fly zone. Likewise, it is essential to one leg of the nuclear deterrence triad, allowing strategic bombers to reach distant targets.
The Air Force leadership has said repeatedly the service has too much real estate and that by closing or reducing some facilities it could save considerable money. The Defense Department has asked for authority to conduct another round of Base Realignment and Closure. That call has met a deaf ear in Congress.
It is time for Congress to either allow a BRAC or give the services the resources they need to protect us. The Travis Community Consortium is sending that message to Washington and will continue to stay engaged.
While Travis had been well-supported over the past several decades by local, state and federal elected officials and engaged civic leaders, the lesson we should all take to heart is that a community can never stop being vigilant, no matter how good things look.
The immense demands being levied on Air Force leadership forces them into actions that in other times would be viewed as unthinkable. It is essential in this situation that we remain ultra-proactive to ensure that the entire picture is understood by our congressional supporters, and that we continue to speak with a strong, unified voice in helping shape the nation’s defense capability.
Bud Ross is chairman of the Travis Community Consortium, a local organization whose aim is to support Travis Air Force Base. Pooling resources, this advocacy group is comprised of Solano County governing bodies, the Solano Economic Development Corporation, Solano Community College, the Travis Regional Armed Forces Committee and Travis Credit Union.