Air Force’s proposed budget means job losses at Keesler, Key

BILOXI and MERIDIAN — The Air Force’s latest budget proposal would eliminate the 917th Fighter Group, a unit of 409 part-time reservists and 171 full-time technicians, at Barksdale Air Force Base. The cuts would take effect by the end of next year on the unit’s 50th anniversary.

The Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse is not slated for any Air Force cuts.

In Mississippi, Keesler Air Force Base would lose 108 active-duty airmen and 10 civilians in fiscal 2013. Key Field Air Guard Station in Meridian would lose 193 reservists and 53 full-time technicians.

Some of Keesler’s cuts are because C-130 aircraft are moving and others because of defense health program changes, Staff Sgt. Kimberly Moore said in an email.

The latest change to plans for Key Field is the loss of the 286th Air Operations Group, a logistics and planning unit with 284 reservists and 48 technicians. That loss and the earlier announced plan to move a C-27J tactical cargo squadron will be partly offset by bringing in nine to 11 MC-12W twin-engine turboprop planes.

The Air Force plans to eliminate 3,900 active duty members, 5,100 Air National Guardsmen and 900 Air Force Reserves nationwide under the proposal.

Most reserve jobs should be eliminated through attrition and reduced recruiting, Lt. Gen. Charles E. Stenner Jr., chief of Air Force Reserve at the Pentagon, said in a news release.

“As we do this, we’re realigning our people into the missions that we expect to endure or be new areas of growth in the future,” he said.

In Louisiana, the proposal calls for retiring 21 of the 917th’s A-10 “Warthog” jets and sending the remaining three to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, said Col. John Breazeale, commander of the 917th.

“Our entire unit is programmed to close when we lose the iron in fiscal year 2013. We will have to place all of our airmen in different units,” he said.

He said about 150 members of the unit are now in Afghanistan.

Although most of the A-10s are about 30 years old, “they all still have plenty of flying time remaining,” Breazeale said.

The aircraft, which have the official nickname “Thunderbolt II,” are designed to support ground troops by shooting at tanks and armored vehicles. The F-35 Lightning II fighter, seen as the A-10’s replacement, is still in development and is in its own budget battle, having become the most expensive defense program to date at more than $200 million each.

Spokesmen for U.S. Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., said they would be asking Defense Department officials about the quotes.

Vitter plans to do so at a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting today, spokesman Luke Bolar said in an email.

Landrieu spokesman Matthew Lehner said the A-10s are an important military asset, and Landrieu, on the Senate Appropriations Committee, will review it “and make sure that the region maintains its significant military footprint,” he wrote in an email. “It is crucial that our troops have the best equipment and most cutting edge training available to defend our freedom both at home and abroad.”

U.S. Rep. John Fleming, a Republican whose district includes Barksdale, called the proposal to eliminate the 917th “an irresponsible decision that reflects the depth of cuts the president is pushing on our military. A 9 percent cut in personnel at Barksdale makes no sense at a time when the deterrence mission of our Air Force is as important as it’s ever been,” he said in an emailed statement.

Nearly 5,400 active-duty airmen are stationed at Barksdale. The 917th makes up about 21 percent of the reserve force and about one-quarter of the base’s technicians, who have full-time civilian Department of Defense jobs tied to their reserve jobs.

Keesler has about 2,600 active-duty airmen, 1,100 civilian employees and 1,300 part-time reservists. Active duty military members affected will be reassigned to other bases. Key Field has nearly 1,100 part-time reservists and 156 technicians.

“I was extremely disappointed to find out that the Air Force has recommended a divestiture of the cNAF mission at Key Field,” said U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, a Republican whose district includes Meridian. “I find this unfortunate and puzzling given that the Air Force has claimed for years that this mission is an integral part of their Total Force Initiative. The Air Force will need to provide the Mississippi delegation with an explanation of what has changed.”

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Biloxi, said he has worked closely with leaders at Keesler and the Pentagon “to ensure national security interests — and the well-being of our men and women in uniform — remain the top priorities going forward.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said, “National security is a federal responsibility, and our Armed Forces must maintain the ability to respond to threats around the world. As the Pentagon works to cut spending, it must not jeopardize the readiness of our troops.”

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., added: “The Air Force is a major economic and national security resource in our state. I will review the President’s budget requests for funding military needs very carefully and support a robust national defense that necessarily includes modern and effective air assets.”

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