Nothing is forever in the military and after a months-long battle to secure a C-27J Spartan flying mission and its field training unit at Key Field and the 186th Air Refueling Wing, it seems all of that is flying the way of the KC-135 tankers that used to fill the skies over Meridian.
According to a report from Air Force Times, the Air Force announced Friday which units and aircraft will be trimmed from the service in the coming years. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said the changes will affect all 50 states. Air Force officials briefed congressional staffs on proposed cutbacks on Friday, and plans to meet with affected delegations in the weeks ahead, Donley said.
So far in this budget cycle, top Air Force brass have highlighted three key priorities for the Air Force: the new KC-46 Tanker, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the long-range strike bomber. Donley, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, have said the service is focusing on multiuse aircraft versus aircraft that tend to have a limited range of missions, such as the C-5 and C-27J Spartan.
186th ARW commander Col. Franklin Chalk said although these are just proposals and nothing is written in stone yet, the air wing is continuing business as usual.
"We are flying and training on the C-27J and in fact we have one crew in Afghanistan right now," Chalk said Saturday afternoon. "We have the throttles pushed all the way forward and going on with our mission."
Meridian's Key Field is the oldest Air Guard base in the state and the 13th oldest in the country. It has seen 24 different aircraft serve from its runways over the 73-year history of the base. The base has a local economic impact of about $70 million.
Chalk said the scuttlebutt seems to surround the flying missions at Key Field as changing from the cargo/troop transport role of the C-27J to the MC-12 reconnaissance role, one for which it developed from the ground up through the Project Liberty program over the past three years.
"If they decided to locate the MC-12 here then that would be right down our alley," Chalk said. "We developed that program and estimates I've heard, and again this is just in the proposal process, is that in place of the C-27s we'd be losing, we'd get nine to twelve MC-12 aircraft in return."
If that is the case, and if the training unit comes with the MC-12 as well, Chalk foresees the number of personnel at Key Field remaining the same thereby having little or no adverse impact on the economic health of the base.
Other units across the nation are not as fortunate as the 186th ARW. Some states will be losing units altogether. Couple those cold hard facts with what is already known, that Air Force leadership and top Department of Defense officials support another round of base realignment and closures, it is easy to see Chalk is finding the clouds with the silver lining.
"BRAC is always a dark cloud hanging over all military bases and installations but the fact is it makes good sense to bring the MC-12 back here where it was born," Chalk said.
The Air Force’s Guard and Reserve components will take a big hit in terms of personnel if the service gets its way — staffing levels would be cut by 6,000 in fiscal 2013, and aircraft levels would also be reduced.
Congress is expected to be presented the Air Force proposals in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the Spartans are a part of the 186th ARW.