A national commission tasked with finding the right balance of regular and reserve components for the Air Force got its first look Monday at the sensitive realm of remotely piloted aircraft during a visit to the Springfield Air National Guard Base.
The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force spent the afternoon in Springfield hearing from commanders and other local guardsmen involved in the remote flying of MQ-1 Predators, an unmanned aircraft that plays a controversial role in the Global War on Terrorism.
“It’s tremendously important to the country, and it seems clear they’re doing it very well,” retired Marine Lt. Gen. Dennis McCarthy, commission chairman, said after being briefed on the local base’s RPA mission.
Because of the sensitive nature of that mission — conducted by airmen who can’t be publicly named — media was kept out of the briefing.
Three commissioners also were briefed on the base’s other primary mission of poring over intelligence for the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, or NASIC.
The eight-member commission was created late last year after lawmakers, including then-U.S. Rep. Steve Austria, R-Beavercreek, balked at the number of cuts to the Air National Guard by the Air Force.
Those cuts include 47 full-time positions in Springfield within the 178th Fighter Wing, and had, at one point, targeted close to 1,000 Air Guard jobs statewide.
The 178th has been given two years to shed those 47 jobs through attrition, said Col. Gregory Schnulo, wing commander.
McCarthy, whose analysis is due to the president by Feb. 1, stressed that the independent commission’s tour of Air Force and Air Guard bases is solely to collect information for a forward-looking report, not to re-evaluate cuts.
“There’s no requirement to look at a specific decision whether it be in Ohio or any place else,” McCarthy said.
The commission started Monday with a visit to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and will tour Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Columbus today and Mansfield-Lahm Air National Guard Base on Wednesday.
A public hearing will be held by the commission at 1 p.m. today at the Ohio Statehouse.
Air Guard bases in Columbus and Mansfield originally had been slated to take the brunt of cuts in Ohio, all of which are unrelated to the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
Rickenbacker still will lose about 180 jobs when six of its 18 KC-135 tankers are retired by September.
Mansfield, however, stands to now gain jobs after initially preparing to lose 800 positions and all four of its C-27J Spartans. It was announced in March that the base will return to flying the C-130 Hercules, a move that could add as many as 180 jobs.
Accompanying the commissioners Monday, Maj. Gen. Deborah A. Ashenhurst, adjutant general of the Ohio National Guard and a Springfield native, confessed that the cuts were “a little heavy on the Guard side.”
But, Ashenhurst is optimistic about the commission.
“It’s going to be a very unbiased opinion on what’s right for America,” she said.
The commission’s report will contain recommendations on a number of topics. But, McCarthy said, at its center will be how the Air Force can strike the optimum balance between regular and reserve forces with a shrinking budget.
“The Ohio National Guard and the National Guard … is doing an absolutely stupendous job being an operational reserve,” he said.
A limited number of bases were chosen for site visits, McCarthy said, to meet airmen and to give the commission a look at the widest range of missions conducted by the Air Force.
“Every place we go, you have to be impressed with the focus of the men and women of the Air Force and the dedication they demonstrate,” he said. “Our experience here has been just a repeat of that.”
For Schnulo, Monday’s visit was a chance to put the local wing’s best foot forward. The base has an annual impact of $99.4 million on Clark County’s economy.
“It’s good for the Guard to get an open look at what we do and how we interact with the active-duty folks at Wright-Patterson,” Schnulo said. “We have such a great partnership with Wright-Patterson and NASIC, and this gives us a chance to highlight it.”
He, too, is upbeat about the commission’s work.
“I think it’s going to turn out positively for the Guard, at least for Springfield,” he said.
The commission took a firsthand look Monday at the impact of sequestration at Wright-Patterson, the largest single site employer in Ohio.
Wright-Patterson base commander Col. Cassie Barlow said the furloughs of about 10,000 civil service employees one day a week that began this month have impeded job productivity, she said.
“They took away the fact that we’re having a really hard time fitting everything into 32 hours a week,” she said. “They also took away it’s a huge impact on our civilians.”
Wright-Patterson employees will lose about $40 million in wages because of the 11-day furlough scheduled through September.
Commission member Janine A. Davidson, a former Air Force pilot, said the effect of sequestration was apparent.
“There’s a lot of talk in Washington and in the media about sequestration not having much of an impact, but one of my takeaways today was that it is having an impact and that the professionals and the leaders in charge of Wright-Patterson are putting the mission first and really trying to work with that,” she told reporters.