WASHINGTON – Calling it one of the gems of the Air Force, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III on Wednesday said the Pentagon has no plans to degrade its tactical air lift mission.
"It is one of the gems of the U.S. Air Force and what we are trying to do is make it more efficient in ways that we can. We are not trying to get rid of anything at Little Rock," he told a Senate panel.
Welsh appeared at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing along with other officials representing active duty, guard and reserve components of the Air Force to talk about the 2015 fiscal year budget.
One impact of President Obama’s budget proposal was that the Air Force Reserve Command decided to move 10 C-130J transport planes from Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi to Little Rock.
The Air Force still plans to remove a dozen C-130H aircraft from Little Rock, which means there remains a net loss for the Air Reserve there. Lt. Gen. James F. Jackson said the Air Force Reserve expects to shed about 60 full-time equivalent positions in Little Rock when all is said and done.
Welsh tried to reassure Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., that the losses where more a reflection of the overall budget picture than any reflection on the Little Rock base.
"Little Rock is the home of tactical airlift for us," Welsh said.
Pryor said after the hearing that Welsh’s reassurances on Little Rock were "music to my ears."
"The Air Force is saying that the best thing for the military is to send more J models to Little Rock Air Force Base because that is where the training is done and the simulators are located. So, I think the Pentagon and Air Force are definitely on the record on that. So, that is huge," Pryor said.
Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the ranking Republican on the panel, was the first to raise concerns about the proposed shift of C-130J aircraft from his state to Arkansas — questioning the justification for the move.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said that the service is reducing its fleet of C-130 aircraft to match anticipated demands. In doing so, it is looking to retire older "H" models and keep the newer "J" models.
In reducing the Reserve fleet from 104 to 66 transport aircraft, Jackson said there was an understandable need to consolidate from the 11 locations where they now operate. Little Rock Air Force base has two active duty squadrons, a reserve squadron and training schools for the C-130H and C-130J aircraft making it the most efficient place to retain the transport aircraft, he said.