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Delaware State News Editorial - Dover Air Force Has a Bright Future

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Dover Air Force Has a Bright Future

By: Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Tom Carper and Rep. Michael Castle

America's military policymakers can learn many lessons from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Foremost among them is that our military's airlift capacity is more crucial than ever in rapidly deploying troops, weaponry and equipment across the globe.

Dover Air Force Base, the busiest military cargo port in the nation, is central to these efforts. During the war in Iraq, for instance, the C-5 Galaxy aircraft, Dover's heart and soul, transported nearly half of the cargo and troops used in combat, completed nearly 5,000 sorties and logged more than 30,000 flying hours. Dover's 436th Air Wing is still providing critical humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people of Afghanistan. The people of Delaware can be proud of the men and women who serve us at Dover AFB and of their many accomplishments.

As Congress continues to shape military policy in a post-September 11th world, among our top priorities are the long-term viability of Dover AFB and ensuring that our nation's strategic airlift needs are met in a cost-effective, common-sense way.

With more than 5,000 civilian and military employees, Dover AFB is the largest employer in Kent County and a significant part of our state's economy. Keeping the base at full strength is obviously good for Delaware's well-being, but Dover's importance is much bigger than that.

The base is absolutely vital to the military health of the United States and stands as one of the Air Force's most-valuable assets. Here's why.

Its location on the Mid-Atlantic coast is ideal for shipping material to the European, African and Middle Eastern theaters. Unlike a number of bases to its north and south, Dover's airspace is relatively free from encroachment by civilian aircraft, allowing military aircraft to take off and land frequently and with relative ease.

In addition, Dover has significant room for growth on existing base property and could expand beyond that, if necessary. The base also enjoys community support unparalleled in the American military, and personnel have their choice of five colleges and universities, all within five miles.

While we may wish its mission weren't necessary, the Charles C. Carson Mortuary at Dover is also the only mortuary in the entire Defense Department, and it's being expanded with a new $20 million facility to provide our fallen heroes with the dignity and honor they deserve.

These are some of the many reasons why we and the U.S. military believe Dover AFB has a bright future and its value would be apparent in any review under the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) -- despite the opinion among some in the Air Force, including outgoing Secretary James Roche, that the 1970s-era C-5As should be retired.

We are all concerned that the phase-out of 14 C-5As, scheduled for 2005, could result in some job losses at Dover, but the Air Force estimates that those losses should be relatively few and temporary in nature.

One reason for this is that the Air Force has promised Dover a squadron of 12 new C-17 cargo aircraft by 2008. Designed to replace the aging C-141s, the C-17 is smaller and more maneuverable than the larger C-5. The combination of both planes at the base should enhance the Air Force's operational flexibility, reinforce Dover's long-term viability, and could actually raise employment levels over time.

That having been said, our congressional delegation continues to fight to keep the older C-5s in operation and stave off as many job losses, however temporary, as we can.

Indeed, in light of our worsening federal budget picture, we believe it makes good economic sense -- for Delaware and for our country -- to modernize as many of the C-5As as possible.

The wings and fuselages of the C-5s have useful lives of another 30 to 40 years. For the cost of purchasing just one new C-17, three C-5s can be outfitted with reliable new engines, modern hydraulics systems and landing gear components, plus a new avionics package that will bring C-5 cockpits into the 21st century.

Because the C-5 can also haul nearly twice as much cargo and fly twice as far as one C-17, the same dollar invested in modernizing C-5s produces close to six times the airlift capacity of the same dollar used to build new C-17s. Choices that are more cost-effective by ratios of six-to-one are exactly the kind of choices we ought to be interested in as we seek to transform our military under the current budget crunch.

Many in Congress apparently agree with this direction, as defense policymakers, working with us, provided $350 million for C-5 modernization last year. This year, Congress looks poised to authorize more than $480 million to help the C-5s continue to shoulder the airlift needs of the American armed services. We are also hopeful that Congress will require the Defense Department to re-evaluate the military's airlift capacity in light of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq -- a report we believe will reinforce our view that upgrading the C-5s is good public policy.

In other Dover-related developments, the Air Force recently decided to build a new state-of-the-art aerial port warehouse, a large cargo-handling facility, to replace the 50-year-old structure whose roof collapsed in a snowstorm earlier this year.
The Air Force has also selected Dover as one of just two bases to upgrade, over the next five years, the cockpits of all 112 C-5's in the fleet, making them safer and easier to fly. In addition, the Air Force and the delegation are pursuing the construction of a new control tower.

All told, the planned improvements and the new aircraft will help, not hurt, the long-term potential of Dover AFB, expanding its mission readiness and making it a more flexible base from which to operate the Air Force's cargo fleet.

Indeed, as the base heads into the latter half of the next decade, Dover AFB could actually grow if the Air Force, as expected, downsizes or closes more marginal air bases throughout the country as a result of BRAC. Those squadrons will have to find a new home somewhere, and we will work hard to prove that Dover AFB would be a good fit for one or more of them.

There are many reasons for the Dover community to be optimistic about the base's future. You can be assured that we will continue to work with the Air Force, the Pentagon, our colleagues in Congress and Kent County to ensure that Dover, as it has always been, remains the central component of a strong and cost-effective national strategic airlift program.

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