The Air Force could lose up to 78 C-130s as the Defense Department determines its intra-theater airlift requirement, Air Mobility Command officials said.
The results of a Defense Department study are classified, but one proposal calls for cutting the C-130 fleet from 358 to 280 aircraft, officials said.
“There is a disagreement on total numbers; I think we’ll land right about 300,” said Gen. Paul Selva, head of Air Mobility Command.
The conversation about how many C-130s the Air Force needs is “not over,” Selva stressed while speaking to reporters during the Air Force Association’s recent Air & Space Conference.
“My position is that the fleet itself is affordable,” he said on Sept. 17. “The question is how we deploy the fleet and who employs the fleet.”
Normally, the Air Force could cut costs by moving planes into the Air National Guard and Reserve, but more than 70 percent of C-130s already belong to the reserve component, Selva said.
“If the department were to declare them excess, it would be very difficult to move them into a Guard or Reserve unit,” he said.
Once all sides agree how many C-130s the Air Force needs, Air Mobility Command will not budget for any aircraft beyond the new intra-theater airlift requirement, command spokesman Lt. Col. John Thomas said.
The idea of cutting C-130s was first mentioned by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in July when he unveiled the results of a study that looked at how the military could trim spending if budget cuts known as sequestration last into fiscal 2015 and beyond. “The Air Force could reduce tactical aircraft squadrons, potentially as many as five, and cut the size of the C-130 fleet with minimal risk,” Hagel said at a July 31 news briefing.
However, Congress has the final say about how many C-130s the Air Force needs, even if that number is above the new requirement.
“We will do what Congress tells us we need to do,” Thomas said.
The Air Force ended up with 32 more C-130s in its inventory than planned in 2013, after a tense battle with Congress over plans to eliminate the Air National Guard’s fleet of new C-27J cargo planes. Congress directed the Air Force to retain 32 cargo planes, but told service leaders to decide whether those planes would be C-27Js or C-130s. The Air Force opted for C-130s.
Because they are flown by so many Guard and Reserve units, C-130s have many fans in Congress, including Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. In June, Wicker said he was working on an amendment that would prohibit the Air Force from divesting intra-theater airlifters until 120 days after a congressionally mandated commission on the structure of the Air Force delivers its recommendations in February.
The commission is one of two entities looking at force structure following the Air Force’s disastrous attempt to cut personnel and aircraft from the Guard and Reserve in the fiscal 2013 budget. Worried about local units, lawmakers were able to reverse most of the proposed cuts, including plans to retire 22 C-130Hs.
At a June 12 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Wicker said he was concerned about the Air Force’s own Total Force Task Force — comprised of one three-star general from each of the service’s three components — which is looking at the most cost-effective way of redistributing missions among the active-duty force, Guard and Reserve.
“I’m convinced that some elements of the [Air Force’s plans] were shortsighted and may adversely impact our intra-theater airlift capability at a time when our services are evolving toward a more rotational deployment model,” Wicker said.