Air Force puts Colorado Springs squadron, 200 airmen on chopping block

March 11, 2014 Updated: March 12, 2014 at 5:07 am
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A C-130 Hercules taxis out to the runway at Peterson Air Force Base after filling up with more fire retardant Tuesday, June 26, 2012. Four air tankers were battling the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo. The tankers drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than five seconds, covering an area one-quarter mile long by 100 feet wide. The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Peterson Air Force Base would lose a squadron of active-duty airmen and four C-130 transport planes under the service's 2015 budget plan.

The move would cut Peterson's roster by 200 airmen and remove a third of the planes now assigned to the 302nd Airlift Wing, wing spokesman Ann Skarban said Tuesday. Eliminating the reserve wing's active-duty 52nd Airlift Squadron is part of wider austerity measures designed to cut the Air Force by 25,000 airmen and reduce Pentagon spending by $900 billion over a decade.

The wing's commander downplayed the proposal in a statement.

"We will continue to train, fly and deploy - keeping in perspective this is a proposal in the very beginning stage," Col. Courtney Arnold said.

Congress must sign off on the cut, which would take place in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The 52nd came to Peterson in 2009 as part of an Air Force plan to tie active-duty airmen to reserve units so that planes could be used more efficiently. To house the unit, the Air Force spent $5.6 million on a squadron operations facility.

The cut would leave the wing with 1,200 reserve airmen and eight planes.

Andy Merritt, who handles defense issues for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, said local politicians and Colorado's congressional delegation were gearing up for a battle to keep the squadron.

"It's only in the President's budget right now, so it is by no means finalized," Merritt said.

"Certainly we would hate to see it happen, but it is not a done deal yet."

The squadron includes a handful of airmen trained in aerial firefighting, a specialty of the wing. The bulk of firefighting work, including missions to contain the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire and the 2013 Black Forest fire, is handled by the wing's reservists.

Skarban said how the cut could impact firefighting was one issue to be studied. Wing leaders hadn't looked at the full impact of the proposal Tuesday.

"No thorough analysis has been conducted," she said.

Merritt said he's concerned that cutting four planes from the wing would make it more difficult for airmen to respond to wildfires and carry out other Air Force missions.

Colorado isn't the Air Force's sole target for C-130 cuts. The Air Force proposal would also eliminate squadrons in Delaware and Wyoming.

Those units, like the Colorado squadron, fly older C-130H transports, built in the 1990s. Those planes are being phased out in favor of newer C-130Js, which have upgraded engines and electronics.

The Air Force plans to retire 500 planes over five years, including its entire fleet of A-10 attack aircraft and U-2 spy planes.

Other cuts at Pikes Peak region Air Force bases were announced last week.

At Air Force Space Command, cuts would stop the purchase of two advanced communication satellites and slow development of a new generation of Global Positioning System satellites. The command hasn't released information on personnel cuts.

The Air Force Academy plans to cut 99 jobs and eliminate 10 of its 33 academic majors to save money.

The Air Force characterized the C-130 cuts as a reduction of "intratheater" transports, needed in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but expendable as the U.S. winds down after more than 12 years in combat.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh released a statement saying that cutting planes means the units that are left will have enough money to properly train. "Without those cuts, we will not be able to start recovering to required readiness levels," Welsh said.

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