Air National Guard members gather outside a Delaware Air National Guard C-130 as they prepare to leave for Germany for a training mission with European armed forces on Saturday. (Kyle Grantham/The News Journal)
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Two C-130 cargo airplanes lifted off into the summer sky from the New Castle Air National Guard Base early Saturday morning, the 45 airmen aboard bound for Germany and 10 days of hauling Army paratroopers during a large multi-nation training exercise.
Taking part in Saber Junction is a big deal for 166th Airlift Wing. The Army-led training, involving 5,800 troops from 16 countries, is the biggest exercise the unit has ever taken part in. “We are the lead Guard unit in this,” said Col. Mike Feeley, the unit’s commander. “We chose that.”
The clock, however, is ticking on the state Air Guard’s ability to operate in Europe, or anywhere else. The wing’s aging C-130H2 aircraft lack a navigation and air traffic control system set to become the world standard over the next few years. Unless Congress comes up with enough money to upgrade its eight C-130s, they won’t be able to fly in much of U.S. airspace, much less Europe’s.
Congress has yet to ratify next year’s fiscal spending plans. But what has been approved by each chamber or its appropriations committee barely mentions the Air National Guard’s older C-130s. Lacking modernization, most of those aircraft will essentially become obsolete.
In the U.S., all aircraft flying in controlled airspace must be compliant with the new satellite-based system by Jan. 1, 2020.
The standard for Europe was slated to kick in much earlier. The European deadline for existing aircraft to reach Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast “Out” compliance – the ability to at least transmit position to ground stations – was originally Dec. 7, 2017.
That recently changed; earlier this month, the European Commission bumped the deadline for older aircraft requiring the gear to June 7, 2020. While that gives U.S. units with such aircraft extra breathing room, it’s not much, particularly given the downsizing of the military and continued pressure on federal spending.
The state Air Guard’s viability is at stake, Feeley said.
“There’s a lot of missions we’re not going to able to do because you’ll get vectored into less desirable routing; you won’t be able to fly through certain airspaces because of it; and because you have to go farther, you won’t have the fuel to be able to do the missions,” he said.
That, he said, could include missions to southeast Asia. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know if we’d even be able to make it,” he said.
The problem is that no one can agree on whether to upgrade the aging airplanes. And with the possible return of automatic “sequestration” budget cuts in 2016, money to do so could be hard to come by.
“We are running out of runway to come up with an affordable alternative plan for avionics modernization,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Senate Budget and Appropriations committees.
Multiple issues face the Air Guard.
■ There are a lot of competitors for upgrade money;
■ The Air Force, cutting costs, might decide to not to upgrade;
■ If sequestration is re-implemented in 2016, all bets are off.
There are three funding options, according to a congressionally directed 2013 study by the Institute for Defense Analyses. One is a program called AMP, for Avionics Modernization Program. That program was launched in 2001 and killed in fiscal 2013. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved funding to bring it back to life, but that measure has yet to become law.
The IDA proposed two less expensive options that offer fewer avionics upgrades.
All three options guarantee that the aircraft comply with regulations for flying in the U.S. and international airspaces under current rules, according to a June Congressional Research Service study of C-130 modernization issues.
The cost differences are significant. According to the IDA’s calculations, upgrading all eight C-130Hs would cost $131.2 million. Its Option A, which would replace all cockpit gauges and add multi-function displays, would cost $56 million – less than half as much. Option B, offering fewer avionics upgrades, would cost $20 million – just $2.5 million per aircraft.
The state’s senior U.S. senator likes the lowest-cost option.
“That is probably a good idea,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a veteran of three tours of duty as a naval flight officer in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. “That will enable us to keep airplanes which I think for the most part can fly for another 10, 20, 30 years, and do so safely.”
So did the IDA. “IDA found that the lower-cost options offered nearly as much capability as AMP, and the study concluded that the Air Force should not pursue the C-130 AMP program as currently defined.”
The Pentagon calls AMP “costly” and prefers pursuing “less-costly alternatives,” according to a letter signed by Katrina McFarland, DoD’s assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, in a letter to the Government Accountability Office commenting on GAO’s review of the IDA study.
How much capability it wants, and where, is another question. The Air Force, active, Guard and Reserve, has 361 C-130s in the combat delivery category. Of these, 261 are older H and J models; the rest are the latest and greatest model, the C-130J. Every unit with older aircraft wants these.
Replacing them all would cost $21.6 billion, according to DoD figures. For Delaware alone, at $83 million apiece, eight C-130Js would cost U.S. taxpayers $664 million.
Some units will get J models. Current plans call for the Air Force to buy less than 30 of them between fiscal years 2014-2018. Given that pace, and the pressures on military spending, buying new Js for everyone does not seem like a possibility.
Time is a factor in any upgrade program. “A fully funded AMP program, even if immediately re-started today with zero programmatic delays, would modernize only a small fraction of the C-130H fleet by 2020,” stated a July letter to Congress from the Adjutants General Association of the United States.
For Delaware, there’s also the question of proximity. The Air Force has proposed replacing the Maryland Air Guard’s A-10 attack jets, which it wants to eliminate entirely, with eight brand-new C-130Js in fiscal year 2018.
Congress seems united behind saving the aged but effective A-10. Still, Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, the state’s Guard’s top officer, has expressed concern over the proposal, saying it doesn’t bode well for Delaware.
A bill introduced by Rep. John Carney, D-Del., in mid-July would authorize the Air Force to install alternative communication, navigation, surveillance, and air traffic management program kits “in lieu of” the more expensive AMP upgrades on a “case-by-case basis” if deemed appropriate, and requires the Air Force to ensure all its C-130s will meet FAA standards by Jan. 1, 2020.
The bill has attracted only three co-sponsors and is languishing in the House Armed Services Committee.
Coons remains committed to J model modernization, saying he plans to “keep building a bipartisan coalition in the Senate of senators who appreciate the capability and the cost-effectiveness of the C-130J as an airframe.” In the meantime, he says, Congress should approve another round of federal base closures – a “BRAC,” as it’s become known – as an “easier and more acceptable way” to find savings while retaining capability.
The Delaware Air National Guard has eight 1980s-era C-130H2 cargo aircraft that need replacement or navigation system upgrades to continue operating in the near future. Here are the potential costs, inclusive:
■ Replacement with C-130Js: $664 million
■ Avionics Modernization Program or AMP upgrades (all-new core avionics package, with common cockpit layout): $131.2 million
■ Option A (replace all cockpit gauges, add multi-function displays): $56 million
■ Option B (fewer avionics upgrades): $20 million
All three options guarantee the aircraft comply with regulations for flying in the U.S. and international airspaces under current rules.