WASHINGTON — Air Force officials declared at a Senate hearing Wednesday that the military is reconsidering its decision to move the 136th Airlift Wing from Fort Worth.
The fight to keep the aircraft based where they are is far from over. But Wednesday's news in response to a question from Texas' senior senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, was welcomed by congressional delegations from all Gulf Coast states, which have joined with Texas to keep the eight C-130 aircraft from going to Montana.
"I am pleased the Air Force leadership is reconsidering the transfer of these critical aircraft from Fort Worth," Hutchison said. "These planes provide a key airlift capacity in saving lives during Gulf Coast disasters. Moreover, it's simply not efficient for the Air Force to move the planes to Montana, where new facilities will have to be constructed to service the planes. I trust the Air Force leadership will ultimately reject this bad idea."
At the hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, Hutchison grilled Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, about the proposed move.
"Are you reconsidering, and if not, why not?" Hutchison asked.
"The short answer is 'Yes we are,'" Schwartz said. "In fact, part of the Council of Governors proposal was an adjustment to our original recommendation." The council, which has 10 governors, was created by President Barack Obama to advise the administration and the Defense Department on hazards and response to emergencies.
Air Force officials said they are working on an alternative plan.
The nation's governors have been outspoken against proposed cutbacks in the National Guard and the relocation of aircraft, including the eight C-130s from Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth; 49 of them sent a letter after the recent National Governors Association winter meeting to Obama opposing the moves.
The governor who did not sign the letter was Rick Perry, who did not attend the meeting because Texas does not participate in the organization for budget reasons.
Perry's staff said the governor supports the effort and has been working with the Texas delegation in opposing the move of the C-130s.
Both Texas senators and the 32-member congressional delegation, led by Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, have written to Obama objecting to the move and pressuring the Air Force to revise their plan.
The Gulf state governors, all Republicans, from Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida also wrote Obama last week specifically asking that the C-130s not be moved to Montana.
"Losing the C-130s takes away a powerful airlift asset for saving the lives of Gulf Coast state citizens," wrote Govs. Perry, Phil Bryant of Mississippi, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Robert Bentley of Alabama and Rick Scott of Florida.
At Wednesday's hearing, Donley told Hutchison: "I just wanted to reinforce that yes, we are looking at this in the context of the Council of Governors' proposal but to reiterate, as we go forward and the military becomes stronger, we need to think about the most efficient use of our armed forces across components and we know this has been an issue for the Guard."
Granger, who has taken a lead role in fighting the C-130s' move, also grilled Schwartz and Donley last week when they appeared at a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee.
"Relocating the Texas Air Guard's C-130s is a prime example of what I think are poor decisions contained in your Air Force proposal," Granger said. "There's no justification for moving assets of an established, well- functioning and experienced unit from Texas, where the C-130s are critical to domestic response, and moving them to Montana, which is far less prone to the number of natural disasters experienced in the Gulf Coast region.
"The unnecessary cost in military construction, additional training and operational requirements is unacceptable, and I believe it's ill-advised," she said.