Several days ago, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz was discussing a long list of aircraft retirements, manpower cuts and unit reorganizations contained in the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2013 budget request to Congress: 286 aircraft gone. 10,000 additional airmen cut. All part of a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next ten years.
Then after explaining the growing importance of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, Schwartz mentioned that one Joint STARS aircraft, “damaged beyond economical repair,” would not be returned to service.
That hit close to home for Moore, the current commander of the Georgia Air National Guard. Moore is responsible for some 2,900 Georgia air guardsmen, two flying wings, seven geographically separated units and a combat readiness training center.
That oversight includes the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base, the guard half of an “active associate” arrangement with the active duty 461st Air Control Wing. Both fly and maintain the E-8C on base.
For two decades, Joint STARS has been a critical element in the nation’s war on terrorism, logging thousands of hours over Iraq and Afghanistan providing detection, identification and tracking of enemy activity on the ground.
The decision was even more personal for Moore. Prior to his promotion, he commanded the 116th Air Control Wing from March 2007 to July 2010 before it transitioned from the Air Force’s only “blended” configuration to the current “active associate” arrangement.
Moore was not happy with the decision to scrap the damaged E-8C. Some three years ago, during a depot process at a contractor site, a cap was mistakenly left on a wing fuel vent. It was not detected until the aircraft was being air refueled over Iraq.
“They transferred over to that wing and it caused an over pressurization,” Moore explained. “They heard a loud bang and fuel started venting over the number two engine.”
Some deft and quick maneuvering enabled the aircraft to pull away and land, but the damage was done.
“They were very fortunate that they didn’t put about 21 people on the ground,” he said.
The cost to fix the aircraft has varied, depending on the repair source. The latest estimate is $17 million.
“I guess the Air Force didn’t want to spend that much to fix the aircraft and bring it home,” Moore noted, “even though it’s a $200 million asset.”
That’s not the only casualty Moore sees for the Joint STARS fleet, now reduced to 16 aircraft. Re-engining -- a sorely needed modification -- likely will not occur, he believes. The current, 40-year-old power plants create maintenance headaches and prevent optimum contribution from the vaunted system.
Instead, he believes Joint STARS will transition to a new platform, possibly within four or five years.
“I think they will go with a business jet like the Gulfstream 550 and keep the wing at Robins,” Moore said. “Of course that’s from a study and no one has said that’s where we are going. But I think it is likely.”
He expects 12 to 15 aircraft.
“I don’t think it will have the same footprint as far as manpower,” the general said, “but it likely would give us more capability.” The wing currently has about 2,600 people split between guard and active duty.
Moore is not entirely pleased with the pain being shared among the Air Force elements in the budget cuts announced in late January. He expected a “balanced approach” but the guard is being hit with more than half of the projected manpower cuts and the majority of the flying unit impacts.
“There wasn’t a lot balanced about it,” he said, “although I think Georgia’s guard units will be ok. At least I haven’t had a late-night call from someone saying I needed to come up with a plan.”
He believes Robins would fare well should another Base Realignment and Closure occur. The base’s excess capacity is a major selling point, particularly the three hangars originally built several years ago to house the guard’s B-1 mission.
“I don’t know why we can’t bring in a new mission on the old B-1 ramp,” he said.
One suggestion is the Air Force Reserve's C-130 unit at Dobbins.
“Marietta is not really a great place to fly as far as air space,” Moore indicated. “They could put them on the west ramp down here. I’ll probably get lynched in Marietta for saying that, but it makes sense.”
He’s concerned that budget cuts -- including any future BRAC -- will become overly politicized.
“You can’t save very much if someone who swings a big stick on the Hill means you keep a base open when it could easily be consolidated with a base one state over,” he said. “My concern is that the political side will mess it all up and it will all be for naught.”
The Warner Robins resident believes the Air Force, including the guard and reserve, will weather the current storm providing the sequestration phase of the Budget Control Act of 2011 does not kick in. The bill has a provision that will trim an additional $600 billion from defense spending by next January if Congress does not identify $1.2 trillion in federal savings.
“If we have to cut another $600 billion, then everybody will have to put on their thinking caps and try to figure out what the end state is going to be,” Moore stressed. “And I believe that end state will find us very weak and unable to project power like we should.”