Dover base could lose aircraft in new budget

Dover Air Force Base, home to the service’s most modernized C-5 cargo jets, would lose as many as four of the huge aircraft – and the personnel needed to service them – if the service’s proposal for structural changes, unveiled Tuesday, becomes law.

In addition, the Air Force would cancel the plan to bring an active-duty C-130 squadron to the New Castle Air National Guard base next year – a possible sign, in the state Guard’s eyes, that the Air Force is not planning to upgrade the Guard’s eight aging C-130 cargo aircraft, which will become obsolete by 2020.

Force structure plans released Tuesday, on the heels of last week’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, include a plan to deactivate four of Dover’s 16 C-5Ms. The aircraft, operated solely at Dover, would remain on the base but would revert to a backup status and used only in the event one of the active C-5Ms is put down for scheduled periodic maintenance or repair, said Philip Rhodes of Air Force Reserve Command.

As a result, Rhodes said, the number of airmen and federal technicians who work in support, maintenance and operations “would be adjusted to reflect the change in assigned aircraft.”

How many that might be remains to be seen. The C-5s – Dover is slated to gain two more C-5Ms – are assigned to the base’s active-duty 436th Airlift Wing but also operated by the Air Force Reserve’s 512th Airlift Wing. Officials don’t yet know, or aren’t yet saying, where the cuts would fall and in what proportion.

“Those numbers are still being worked out,” Rhodes said.

The goal, Rhodes said, is reducing the cost of maintaining the airplanes. Dover also operates the C-17 cargo jet.

Dover, perhaps best known as the base where U.S. war dead are first brought stateside, has played a major role in resupply of the war effort in Afghanistan. Over the course of the war, about 30 percent of the cargo shipped to Afghanistan was flown in, and Dover delivered an average of 65 percent of that total – although about 70 percent of that total was flown on commercial contract flights.

In New Castle, the cancellation of the “active association” would be significant because the active Air Force C-130 fleet is transitioning to the newest J models, which are capable of operating in the all-digital air traffic control environment becoming the worldwide standard in 2020. The state Guard’s older H models will become obsolete by that time. Guard officials reason that active units would have no interest in working with an aircraft destined for the dust bin. Thus, it could signal, the Guard feels, that the 166th is not getting an upgrade to the J model – and that the unit will lose its flying mission.

Broadly, the cuts are but a fraction of the wider changes the Air Force wants to make as it transitions to a “leaner force.” It has proposed eliminating entire classes of aircraft and close to 25,000 jobs as it struggles to meet lower spending targets and maintain readiness while continuing to develop and field the expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Contact William H. McMichael at (302) 324-2812 or bmcmichael@delawareonline.com. On Twitter: @billmcmichael.

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