Lawmakers question Air Force plan to close guard unit at Jefferson Barracks
WASHINGTON – After a decade without funding, the 121st Air Control Squadron at Jefferson Barracks was reactivated in 2010 and provided last year with more than $40 million worth of new equipment, including a 77-foot-high radar tower.
But this winter, the Air Force announced that it intended to eliminate the St. Louis squadron in 2013 – at a loss of about 200 positions, including more than 40 full-time jobs – as part of a budget cutback that involved Air National Guard aircraft and personnel.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., questioned that plan, asking a top Air Force official to justify the planned elimination of the 121st – requesting details of the projected cost savings versus the loss of defense capabilities and technical expertise.
“The institutional knowledge, as well as the homeland defense and disaster response capabilities of the 121st Air Control Squadron, clearly contributes substantially to the readiness of our armed forces,” McCaskill wrote to the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz. “This is experience that the Air Force must think long and hard about before you decide to risk losing it.”
McCaskill’s letter was sent in the context of outcries by governors – including Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, both Democrats – and by the National Guard leaders of nearly every state that the Air Force proposals went to far. In response, Pentagon officials said recently that they are reassessing the planned cutbacks.
Both U.S. Reps. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, and Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, have also expressed concerns with the Air Force's plan to eliminate the 121st ACS. “It would be wasteful of taxpayer money to end this project now, and it would detract from homeland security and military readiness missions,” Carnahan said in a statement Wednesday. “I am calling on the Air Force to further explain the potential shuttering of the 121st.”
In March, Akin – who chairs a House Armed Services subcommittee – had objected to the proposed Air National Guard cutbacks. “Over 200 positions from Jefferson Barracks alone will negatively impact the guard and families around the St. Louis region that depend on income from serving their country in the Missouri Guard,” Akin said.
A spokesman for the Missouri National Guard declined Wednesday to discuss the fate of the 121st ACS, referring a reporter’s questions to the Air Force. The squadron is a mobile unit that provides airborne command and control capability from any location to which it is deployed. According to the Missouri National Guard’s 2011 annual report, the squadron offers a flexible and independent “command and control system capable of conducting a wide array of battle management functions in support of a theater air component commander.” It also supports a Missouri mission “to provide personnel and equipment to protect life and property and preserve the peace,” at the governor’s order.
“After 11 years without funding, program change approval called for the reactivation of the 121st ACS in 2010,” the annual report said, adding that the squadron had “purchased and installed a 77-foot tower for the purpose of mounting the AN/TPS-75 radar antenna.”
A blog item posted last spring on the Missouri National Guard site reported that “reestablishing an air control mission at Jefferson Barracks” was part of a recommendation of a Base Closure and Realignment Commission study that, instead of recommending that the barracks be closed, “did an about-face after touring the facility in January 2009. In the wake of that visit, the maintenance budget for Jefferson Barracks rose from about $20,000 a year to more than $2 million.”
In a statement to the Beacon, Carnahan said the 121st ACS “is in the midst of a critical communications project that will provide the Air Force with a strategic advantage over potential enemies.” He complained that eliminating the squadron “will take with it 200 jobs, 40-plus of which are full time. I urge the Air Force to fully answer the questions raised, and to reconsider the effect of this closure on a larger bottom line than just that of one squadron.”
There are indications that the Air Force is reconsidering its planned cutbacks of guard units, although it was unclear this week whether the plan to eliminate the 121st ACS would be reevaluated.
This spring, the National Guard leaders of Missouri, Illinois and every other state cosigned a letter from their umbrella organization – the Adjutants General Association – complaining about the planned Air Guard cuts to the leaders of the U.S. House and Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees.
“It is counterintuitive that the Air National Guard, which comprises 21 percent of the uniformed members of the total Air Force, would bear 59 percent of the total aircraft cuts and approximately six times the per capita personnel cuts,” the state adjutants general wrote. They asked Congress to put a hold on the Air Force’s fiscal 2013 budget request until congressional committees review what the guard's leaders assert were “flawed processes, assumptions and criteria” used by the Air Force to propose the cuts.
A separate letter signed by 49 governors, including Nixon and Quinn, complained that the cuts would “dramatically alter the ability of the National Guard to respond to emergencies and protect citizens. A highly experienced and capable force, the National Guard is essential in responding to domestic disasters and emergencies as well as completing critical missions abroad.”
On Wednesday, retired Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett Jr., president of the National Guard Association of the U.S., said that guard leaders are “buoyed by the determination of the nation’s governors to stave off the Air Force’s ill-advised and disproportionate cuts to the Air National Guard in the fiscal 2013 defense budget request.”
Commending Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for offering to talk with governors about their objections, Hargett said: “It is now time for Congress to keep current Air National Guard funding and force structure in place until the process that Secretary Panetta has offered can become a reality.”