Main hangar at Battle Creek's Air National Guard base. (Courtesy: John Grap/Battle Creek Enquirer)
WASHINGTON (Gannett Washington Bureau) -- Air Force officials said Tuesday they may change a budget reduction plan that was expected to cause hundreds of job cuts to the Michigan Air National Guard.
An alternative, proposed by the states, would shift some of the personnel cuts from the Air National Guard to the active-duty troops.
"Those discussions are ongoing," Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Donley said that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who will make the final decisions, will be brought into the discussion later this week.
Governors have complained that the Air National Guard is bearing a disproportional share of the cuts the Air Force has proposed to meet budget reductions set by Congress. The governors argue that the Guard is absorbing 59% of the cuts in aircraft and six times the per capita personnel cuts compared to the active duty Air Force.
The Michigan Air National Guard would lose at least 652 jobs, including about 70 in Battle Creek, under the original Air Force plan. The Air Force wants to replace the four C-27J cargo planes planned for Battle Creek with unmanned aerial vehicles.
The biggest proposed cuts in Michigan are at least 561 jobs that would be cut at the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, which is losing 21 A-10 fighters.
"I've got some real problems with these proposed force reductions," said Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee. Other senators on the committee expressed similar concerns.
Levin said he has not reviewed the states' proposal but expects the committee will make its own changes. Levin got Donley to agree that the Air Force would not move forward with the Air Guard changes until his committee writes its authorization bill for the 2013 budget. Levin said that will give the committee more time to review the Air Force's justification of the changes, which Levin said after the hearing were inadequate.
"I think there's going to be some significant changes," he said.
The counter proposal being considered by the Air Force was developed by the Council of Governors, a bipartisan group of 10 governors created to consult with the federal government on defense issues. The council says its proposal would save more money than the Pentagon's plan while preserving the personnel and aircraft needed to respond to domestic emergencies throughout the country. The C-27Js that the Air Force wants to eliminate, for example, would provide vital disaster response and emergency transport for Michigan, according to Battle Creek government and civic leaders who are fighting the change.
Donley said the Air Force's proposed changes were aimed at meeting surge and rotational requirements while making the required budget reductions.
"We determined that the Air Force's best course of action is to trade size for quality," Donley said. "We will become smaller in order to protect a high-quality and ready force, one the will continue to modernize and grow more capable in the future."
The budget reductions also include asking Congress to approve two more rounds of base closings.
Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz said closures are needed because the Air Force has retired almost 500 aircraft since bases were last reviewed in 2005.
"Not only do we have fewer aircraft, there's also a fundamental question of right-sizing our squadrons for maximum efficiency," Schwartz said. "We need to have good assessments of capacity and we need to do that because if we don't, we're going to be expending resources in areas less important to us than others, like readiness and modernization."
In the 2005 base closing process, the independent commission created to recommend closings overturned a Pentagon recommendation to shutter the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base.
And a 1993 commission didn't go along with Pentagon plans to close Battle Creek's Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center where the Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services is based.
Levin said he does not believe there is support on the committee for another round of domestic base closures, though senators would like to see overseas bases scrutinized.
He said he will press for more justification on the Air Force's decision to end the C-27J cargo plane, which Donley said isn't needed because the larger C-130 can perform most of the same missions. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said the hearing left him with more questions than answers about the cost savings of eliminating the C-27J.
"We're going to look into all these areas," Levin said after the hearing.
By MAUREEN GROPPE, Gannett Washington Bureau