By Peter Johnson
U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus have asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to keep the F-15 flying mission at the Montana Air National Guard until fiscal 2014, when Great Falls is due to get a C-130 transport unit.
In a press release Wednesday, the Montana Democrats outlined their suggestion and provided a copy of their letter to Panetta.
In a nutshell, they said a bill approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, and full House action the week before, block the Pentagon from transferring Air National Guard flying missions during fiscal year 2013, which starts Oct. 1, 2012.
Baucus and Tester said they support that delay, which gives the Senate committee time to reassess proposed Air National Guard cuts and transfers.
But they told Panetta they hope the Defense Department doesn't begin to shift MANG's F-15 mission to the California Air National Guard in Fresno before fiscal year 2013. Tentative Air Force plans called for the shift to start as early as August of this year, during fiscal year 2012, if environmental assessments are successfully completed.
"We request confirmation that the Defense Department will immediately halt plans to transfer the F-15 mission from Montana to California," Baucus and Tester said, adding that doing so will ensure MANG can continue to play a key defense role until close to the arrival of C-130s in fiscal year 2014, which starts Oct. 1, 2013.
The Montana senators also stressed to the defense secretary that they "strongly support" MANG's selection for C-130s.
"That mission is in the best long-term interests of the Montana Air National Guard and Great Falls and will provide a critical asset that allows us to better respond to disasters and homeland emergencies in the region," they said.
"Essentially, the senators want to close the mission gap as much as possible for MANG and are looking forward to a good, long run for the C-130s," said Tester spokeswoman Andrea Helling.
Baucus and Tester said MANG's airmen are "world class" and Montana's training airspace "is an unrivaled national asset" at a time when other bases and training space are threatened by civilian encroachment.