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Helmut Schmidt, Published May 10 2012

House seeks to keep C-27J flying

FARGO – There’s progress in the fight to keep a manned aircraft mission at Fargo’s Air National Guard base, supporters said Thursday.

Language preserving the C-27J Spartan cargo aircraft program, and other National Guard programs and personnel, was inserted in the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill moved out of the House Armed Services Committee Thursday, Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., announced.

“We knew we had our work cut out for us. And this is very good news,” said Maj. Gen. Dave Sprynczynatyk, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard.

Now, the same work must be done in the Senate, he said.

“We’re going to continue to give it everything we can to make sure that the 119th Wing, the Happy Hooligans in Fargo, have a manned flying mission going in the future,” Sprynczynatyk said.

Berg, the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Air National Guard Support Group and the metro Chamber of Commerce plan a news conference this morning at the Fargo Air Museum to discuss the effort to revive the C-27J mission for North Dakota’s Air Guard.

The National Defense Authorization Act could be considered by the full House as early as next week, Berg’s office stated.

North Dakota is one of seven states with Guard units that had expected to get C-27Js, but they were cut by the Air Force as it sought cost savings to meet budget directives from the Obama administration.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Thursday that he and other senators are working on the Senate.

Hoeven said money for the C-27Js was authorized and appropriated for use in the 2012 fiscal year.

“So this is not new spending,” he said.

He said the C-27Js are new and cheaper to operate than aircraft now in use. Senators are working on language requiring the Air Force to follow through with Congress’s wishes, he said.

“It’s very important airlift, and it’s (the C-27J) proven itself in Afghan-istan,” Hoeven said. “This is a mission that’s more cost-effective than C-130s. They’d also have new planes that they’d be, in essence, mothballing. That doesn’t make sense.”

The Air Guard in Fargo now flies the C-21, a military version of the civilian Learjet. There is also a wing flying the MQ-1 Predator, a remotely piloted aircraft.

But the C-21 mission will move out of Fargo next year, Guard officials said.

Unless the C-27J or some other aircraft wing is assigned to the state, that would leave North Dakota as the only state without a manned flying mission, officials said.

On the other side of that equation, the Fargo Guard base is expected to get an “intelligence group,” which would bring total troop strength above the 1,082 now on hand, Sprynczynatyk said.

He said the Air Force is adamant that the C-27J must go, and has also cut the Guard heavily elsewhere.

“In essence, the Air Force is looking to the future and quite frankly putting the brunt of the cuts required on the Air National Guard,” Sprynczynatyk said.

He encourages more balanced cuts, particularly since he believes the Guard can do many missions cheaper than the active-duty Air Force.

He said the C-27J has not only been useful in Iraq and Afghanistan, but would be welcomed by Guard units for support during disasters and for homeland defense duties.

“You know, last year during the flood fight, the C-27 would have been great to help us move personnel, sandbags, equipment, supplies from one end of the state to another,” Sprynczynatyk said.

Local business leaders are encouraged.

“Generally speaking, we feel better than a week ago.” said Craig Whitney, president and CEO of the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce. Whitney also leads the Guard support group.

“I think it’s looking reasonably good for us here in Fargo-Moorhead,” Whitney said. “It’s not permanent, it’s not definite … but the general tone is a lot better than it has been.”

Whitney said without a manned mission in Fargo, Guard fire and rescue crews, which also service the civilian side of Hector International Airport, could be pulled. Paying for those services could add costs that might cause air carriers to drop service to Fargo, which would hurt firms relying on air transport.

“It’s a real priority for the chamber and the board,” Whitney said.

The National Guard Association of the United States also praised the House action seeking to halt the Air Force’s proposed Air Guard cuts in fiscal year 2013.

The group’s president, Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett Jr., called the cuts to the Guard ill-advised and disproportionate.

“The pause would preserve Air Guard capabilities to accomplish its many missions while the Department of Defense and the nation’s governors develop a process that better accounts for domestic missions in future defense budgets,” he said in a news release.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583