By: William Petroski
Des Moines Register


BUDGET IMPACT: The leaner military budget proposed by the Pentagon for 2013 would cost Iowa businesses with Department of Defense contracts an estimated $143 million annually, says a study by the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, which opposes the plan.
OBAMA’S PLAN: Overall, President Barack Obama has asked Congress to spend
$614 billion, down nearly
$32 billion from this year’s military budget. The impact would mean some Iowa businesses might have to fire workers, the report said. Iowa firms had 3,117 military contracts in 2010. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has told Congress the budget would maintain the U.S. defense advantage worldwide, but critics disagree.
SEQUESTRATION IMPACT: Deeper military cuts, totaling about $286 million annually for Iowa businesses, could occur if automatic, across-the-board spending reductions are implemented in January under so-called sequestration requirements, the center said. Defense cuts at that level could force some Iowa businesses that have had military contracts to close, the report concluded.

The future of the Iowa Air National Guard’s 132nd Fighter Wing might be best served by a new mission — even one without its aging fighter jets — says the man who once oversaw the Des Moines-based unit.

Retired Lt. Gen. Ron Dardis, a longtime warrior in Pentagon budget battles, said it is inevitable that the 21 F-16s assigned here must eventually be phased out.

Although some of the unit’s supporters are girding to fight the Pentagon’s recently announced proposal to retire all the combat aircraft assigned to the Des Moines airport unit, Dardis said a new role might better position the 132nd for the future. The state’s two other Air National Guard units previously accepted new missions and have been able to avoid the latest round of cuts, he said.

In 2003, Sioux City’s 185th Air Refueling Wing converted from flying F-16 fighters to flying KC-135 tanker aircraft — so-called “gas stations in the sky” — deployed around the world to keep combat aircraft aloft. A year earlier, Fort Dodge’s 133rd Test Squadron switched from an air control squadron to become a one-of-a-kind unit that tests new and emerging military technology.

Dardis, who was adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard from 1999 through 2009, said Iowans who don’t want to lose the fighter unit and the 1,000 airmen who support it need to stay patient, respect the congressional budget process, and be open to negotiating a new role for the unit with the Air Force.

“This is early in the process — kind of a strategy phase. This is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Dardis, a former “Top Gun” pilot.

Col. Drew DeHaes, a graduate of Texas A&M University who commands the 132nd Fighter Wing, said he is open to a new mission, depending on the fine print. The Air Force has recommended that the Des Moines wing be converted to a unit that remotely controls Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft typically launched outside the U.S. in places like Afghanistan. But Pentagon officials haven’t said yet how many airmen would remain here, and their plans don’t include basing drone aircraft in Des Moines.

“I have said that if they were going to re-mission us with MQ-9s (Reapers) and give us a full 1,000 people out here, I would wholeheartedly embrace it,” DeHaes said. “But if we are being re-missioned and given a 40 percent personnel cut and I am losing half of my full-time (airmen), that is a whole different deal.”

F-16 jets have been based in Des Moines since 1992, and most were manufactured in the late 1980s. The majority of the aircraft here — known as “Block 30” models — would normally be slated for retirement between 2018 and 2020, DeHaes said. He added that he is well aware such older aircraft don’t provide an “enduring mission” for the 132nd Fighter Wing.

One idea discussed in military circles is reducing the size of active-duty Air Force squadrons and distributing newer models of F-16s to Air National Guard units, DeHaes said. Only one Air National Guard unit — in Burlington, Vt. — has been designated so far to receive the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

James Carafano, a national security scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., said he disagrees with the Pentagon’s budget plans. The Air Force has proposed eliminating $8.7 billion in spending while retiring 303 aircraft worldwide. The overall Pentagon budget would slash nearly $32 billion in annual appropriations.

“This isn’t a strategy. This is budget-driven exercise with a strategy guidance laid on top of it to rubber-stamp it,” said Carafano, a 25-year U.S. Army officer and author of six books on defense issues.

“Look, essentially what we are doing is we want to go back to a military that is the size it was under President Clinton. I was at the Pentagon at the end of the Clinton years, and I remember the Joint Chiefs being dragged to the Hill and beaten up about readiness and not having capabilities. We are not living in the 1990s. We have a nuclear North Korea. We have a growing China. We have a Middle East in turmoil, and for somebody to say we should go back to an army that we knew was inadequate in the ’90s is just ridiculous,” Carafano said.

But Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in defense and foreign policy at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington, believes the Air Force needs to get a little smaller.

“The broad argument is that drones have become such a huge part of the way we do ground attack. The way the Air Force initially handled this, starting about a decade ago, was to essentially treat drones as a nice-to-have capability without making any changes in the previous force structure. But when militaries get new capabilities to do an old mission in a better way, at some point they need to rethink the assets they used for the same mission,” O’Hanlon said.

That isn’t to suggest that manned aircraft should become obsolete, O’Hanlon added. But he does believe that the Air Force should have more drones and fewer manned aircraft and that the F-16 fighter is a natural candidate for retirement.

However, it is worth asking why the 132nd Fighter Wing’s F-16 aircraft are being targeted, O’Hanlon added. “Local communities have a right to understand the logic and even to challenge the logic,” he said.

Air Force officials said in a 12-page budget document that the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve were involved in all the analysis and decision making. Goals included allocating at least one flying unit with Air National Guard equipment to each state and letting Air National Guard leaders manage their own resources.

“The Air Force will continue leveraging the contributions of its valued Air National Guard and Air Reserve partners, but is rebalancing the total force to match capability and capacity requirements of the Department of Defense’s new strategic guidance,” Pentagon spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in an email to The Des Moines Register.

Two decades of reductions in the Air Force have significantly shifted the ratio of active-duty to Air Guard/Reserve forces. In 1990, Guard and Reserve forces represented 25 percent of the Air Force’s personnel. That percentage has increased to 35 percent today. Aircraft flown by the Guard and Reserve have also climbed from 23 percent to 28 percent of the total.

Iowa’s congressional delegation recently met with Air Force officials but left with more questions than answers.

“The Air Force still cannot provide an adequate explanation for targeting Des Moines, the cost-effectiveness of decommissioning this unit, or the impact it will have on the local community. These are answers that must not only be provided to the congressional delegation, but to all Iowans in this community,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee .

Master Sgt. Todd Alexander, 49, of Des Moines, an aircraft fuel systems supervisor, said it was certainly an eye-opener when he heard that his unit might be losing its F-16s. But he also realized it was possible because of budget constraints.

“I just want to see this base stay open. I am close enough to retirement age that I know there are a lot of good people out here, and I want the best for them,” he said.