By Mary Orndoff
Alabama's congressional delegation confronted Air Force leaders in a closed-door meeting Wednesday about plans to move seven C-130 transport planes from a Montgomery Air Force Reserve unit, a sign that impending cuts to the defense budget are starting to take their toll.
As part of an overall downsizing announced earlier this year, the Air Force has said that in 2014 it will move the 27-year-old planes out of the 908th Airlift Wing at Maxwell Air Force Base, a decision that lawmakers say threatens hundreds of jobs and the future of the unit itself.
U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, said she asked top Air Force officials to justify the move and document how it will save money.
"We are going to have a smaller force and ... there is not going to be a state that is not affected. We know that," Roby said after the meeting at the U.S. Capitol. "But we also have a job to oversee whether or not the decision makes fiscal sense."
The meeting was with Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz. But that most members of Alabama's congressional delegation also attended is a strong sign that the Pentagon is in for some political battles over what to cut as part of a 10-year, $487 billion downsizing.
Alabama has four major military installations plus dozens of Reserve and Guard units around the state, and defending them from the budget ax has been a top priority for Alabama politicians in years past.
The seven transport planes of the 908th were on the hit list released by the Air Force earlier this year, part of a five-year plan to save $8.7 billion. The Air Force said at the time that the planes would be "removed" but that the 908th would remain intact.
"To ensure an agile and ready force, we made a conscious choice not to maintain more force structure than we could afford to properly train and equip," Schwartz said in a released statement in February. "We've taken this approach to preserve the capabilities the nation requires of its Air Force."
But Roby said she still has questions about why the Air Force would transfer the planes to another facility, and whether the Air Force instead should consider moving an active duty C-130 unit to Maxwell to put the planes to more use.
"I respect the job that the secretaries and the chiefs have; it is hard, and none of us think this was capricious. We just want to make sure it's not arbitrary," Roby said.
Pentagon officials are in the process of implementing the $487 billion in cuts announced earlier this year. But Congress has threatened an additional $500 billion if it cannot reach a long-term budget deal that reduces the federal debt.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, who also represents part of Montgomery County, said he did not believe the Air Force would be able to prove the move is a money-saver.
"If they were just retiring the seven planes and crews ... we probably would have just taken our medicine, but they're relocating them," Rogers said. "They're not going to save any money by doing that." Roby and Rogers are both on the House Armed Services Committee.