There will be C-130 assistance to the Forest Service this summer after Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke, director of the Air National Guard, said homeland alert missions such as firefighting and search and rescue are top priorities of the Guard. (Staff Sgt. Daryl McKamey / Air Force)
Budget uncertainty is forcing the National Guard to prioritize its homeland missions, namely keeping crews on operational alert, while Air Force Reserve Command is forced to hold off on upgrades to its C-130s and F-16s, the top generals of each component said.
Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke, in his first appearance before Congress as director of the Air National Guard, said the Guard is putting first its homeland alert missions, along with search and rescue efforts and homeland priorities such as firefighting, while the component is facing mandatory budget cuts.
“We prioritize to make sure that we don’t let any operational missions fall behind like aerospace contingency or control alert,” Clarke said March 19 before the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee.
That was a departure from earlier this year, when the head of Air Mobility Command said there might not be enough money to train crews for the firefighting mission this fiscal year.
Firefighting was identified as a high-priority mission, so plans are to allocate enough flying hours to fully train crews for this firefighting season, said Air National Bureau spokeswoman Rose Richeson.
Funding for the firefighting mission comes from the Forest Service, which sets money aside and then transfers it to the bureau, she said.
The Air National Guard plays a key role fighting forest fires because the Forest Service’s fleet of aerial tankers has diminished drastically. During the very active 2012 season, the Forest Service had only eight tankers available. The 145th Airlift Wing from North Carolina and the 153rd Airlift Wing from Wyoming are slated to conduct training from May 6-10. The 146th Airlift Wing from California will train from May 13-18.
Firefighting is a dangerous mission that requires the most experienced crews, who must fly just above stall speed while carrying thousands of pounds of flame retardant. Often, they fly very low and in hilly terrain.
The extent of the danger these crews face became apparent July 1, when a C-130 from the 145th Airlift Wing flew through a small and intense thunderstorm called a “microburst” and crashed in South Dakota. Killed were Lt. Col. Paul K. Mikeal, Maj. Ryan S. David, Maj. Joseph M. McCormick and Senior Master Sgt. Robert S. Cannon. Two airmen were injured.
Same standards for all
Clarke, who took control of the Air National Guard this year, said his biggest priorities are to minimize the toll of budget cuts in the Guard, work with active duty and Reserve on determining the right mix of forces, and make sure all Air Force assets are modernized.
The current number of 89 wings in the Air National Guard is “healthy,” Clarke said, but additional cuts could threaten the current operational level.
Clarke said it is “so critical” for the Guard and Reserve components to meet the same standards and inspections as the active duty while being part of the air expeditionary force.
The threat of civilian furloughs for the remainder of fiscal 2013 may affect some units because of the support full-time employees provide to the component, said Lt. Gen. J.J. Jackson, chief of the Air Force Reserve. He added two main upgrade programs are on hold — an engine upgrade on its C-130s and adding 12 Litening targeting pods to its F-16Cs at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., and Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas.
There are methods in place now to assure better budget communication among congressional, state and Air Force leaders. Last month, the Council of Governors, a bipartisan group of 10 state leaders, announced a new pact with the Defense Department to be more involved in budget discussions, including an agreement that all governors and their adjutants general will be able to discuss budget proposals affecting the states.
Also, the NDAA created a National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, an independent group appointed by Congress and the administration to discuss the structure of the Air Force.
And the Air Force has created its own Total Force Task Force made up of three two-star generals from each component to look at the right mix of forces.