- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - The state Air National Guard hopes that 73 words signed into law on Dec. 16 by President Obama as part of a $1.1 trillion spending bill represent a commitment to modernize its eight aging C-130s and keep it in business past mid-2020.

At that time, the planes will need to have been upgraded to be able to fly in a satellite-based navigation and air traffic control system that is becoming the world standard. But first, the planes have to survive likely Air Force cuts in the Air Guard’s C-130 fleet.

As that uncertainty looms, the Delaware Air Guard is preparing for one of its busiest years in some time.

According to Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, the state Guard’s adjutant general, there will be cuts. “We know that there will be a decreased number of C-130s in the Air Force’s overall fleet,” he said. “What I need to do is ensure that my wing is not one that’s going to go away,” Vavala said. “That they are going to be part of the modernization.”

Some of the state Guard’s airplanes were to deploy in early 2015 to support the Defense Department’s fight to tamp down the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

That deployment was canceled Dec. 18, but another mission in September will send several aircraft and about 350 airmen to the U.S. Central Command area of operations, among others.

It’ll be the state Air Guard’s busiest year since 2007, officials say.

The deployment plans underscore the value of the tactical cargo airplanes, as does the legislation. But while many would tout the value of retaining the entire fleet of C-130s, old as well as new, the legislation doesn’t exactly provide an explicit road map to modernization - as Vavala, and Col. Mike Feeley, commander of the 166th Airlift Wing in New Castle, found out during a mid-December conference at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.

“It’s still fuzzy to Air Mobility Command as well,” Vavala said Dec. 19, after returning to the Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters near New Castle. He called the inclusion of the language, culled from an amendment introduced by Rep. John Carney, D-Del., an “obvious success.”

But, he said, “the Air Force has got to develop a plan, and send these out on bid for contracting for a less-costly avionics upgrade for our C-130 fleet.”

A larger question looms over the cost, which Vavala said will probably come in at around $2.5 million per aircraft: How many will the Air Force keep?

The air side of the house isn’t Vavala’s only concern. With major combat operations having ended in Afghanistan, the active Army, he said, is looking at additional force structure cuts, and other savings.

The result is a significant cut in Delaware Army Guard training dollars, 40 percent for 2015. Bonuses for new recruits in the Army Guard are no longer being offered. The state Army Guard’s facilities budget is being cut 50 percent through September, Vavala said.

“So, in this constrained budget environment, how do I continue to have a well-trained and ready force to be able to plug into any contingency operations?” he said.

The state’s Company F, 126th Aviation Regiment, an aeromedical evacuation unit, remains deployed to a classified location in Southwest Asia; 20 soldiers left in June for nine to 12 months. On the air side, the 166th Civil Engineering Squadron and the 142nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron remain deployed to the same region, with some of the latter unit also scattered in Europe and the U.S.

Both units, with about 30 airmen each, left Delaware in the fall on six-month deployments.

Vavala said there currently are about 364 C-130s in the Air Mobility Command fleet, which includes the active and reserve Air Force, and the Air Guard. That will likely fall.

“If you talk to Gen. (Darren) McDew out at Air Mobility Command, he’s throwing a number of about 300 around,” Vavala said. “But that’s not in concrete right now.”

Defense Department budgeters, he said, are looking at a reduction to about 248.

That concerns the Air Guard, and Air Force Reserve. According to a June Congressional Research Service report, about 100 of the 364 C-130s are newer J models, which are thoroughly modern and ready for the coming digital avionics environment. They can also haul more cargo and fly farther, and do so with two fewer crew members.

Most of them are in the active force, which will eventually fly only J models and which could total anywhere from 100 to 150 airplanes when all is said and done. That means, Vavala said, that “somewhere along the line, the Guard and reserve are going to have to give some up.”

An assumption of 150 J models in the active force and an overall total of 248 would leave 98 C-130s, mostly older models, spread over 18 states, including Delaware. Current plans call for building only 21 additional Js for the Air Guard over the next several years.

To try to make sure the Delaware Air Guard fleet remains, Vavala is going to have to do what adjutants general in 17 other states will be doing: lobby.

“I have to go back to our strength, which is in the relationship with the Congress of the United States,” Vavala said. “My job is to keep that in front of our congressional delegation, and do everything I can - like this last trip out (to Scott Air Force Base) and speaking to General McDew - to make sure that Delaware is going to stay in the C-130 business.

“Because I think in the long term, it’s gonna be there.”

The Delaware Air Guard has strengths the delegation can tout in making the state’s case. A ramp and parking apron renovation played a role in helping it escape a 2005 federal base closure commission recommendation to send away its C-130s. The base has the capacity to handle up to 12 C-130s, should another base lose its C-130s.

Vavala said there may be some valid reasons why that could happen; some states could have multiple units, and he would argue for every state keeping at least one.

If planners decide it’s important to retain C-130s in each major region of the country, Delaware would play well in the mid-Atlantic, he said. A five-year budget plan unveiled in early 2014 called for spiking the venerated A-10 attack jet, including those flown by the Maryland Air Guard.

But the plan called for replacing that loss with C-130Js, which the Maryland Guard had and flew until 2011. The presence of the newer models at Warfield Air National Guard Base, east of Baltimore, wouldn’t bode well for Delaware.

The new spending bill, however, calls for saving the A-10, beloved by infantrymen everywhere but which the Air Force desperately wants to get rid of so it can pour more money into the F-35. That would leave the A-10s at Warfield for the time being.

Other bases in the region, he said, fly KC-135s, F-16s and C-130Js, but the latter are Special Operations models that aren’t used in a combat transport role.

“I don’t have any real competition in the National Capitol Region,” Vavala said.

Still, Vavala realizes that those factors guarantee nothing. And much to the chagrin of the affected adjutants general, there’s no established timeline for determining how many legacy C-130s aircraft will get modernized and when the work will get done, although the mandated deadline for modernizing existing aircraft, June 7, 2020, looms in the near distance.

___

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com


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