National Guard: Gates weakening security

National Guard leaders from 48 of the 50 states sent a letter to the House and Senate Armed Services committees on Thursday warning that a budget decision made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates would weaken national security.

The adjutants general from the states, along with three representing U.S. territories, are challenging Gates’s request to halve the C-27J Joint Cargo Aircraft program and transfer all responsibility to the Air Force, in a rare rebuke of the secretary outlined in their letter.

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To make their point, the 51 adjutants general who signed the letter indicated the decision “decimates the Joint Cargo Aircraft program [and] is a cause of grave concern.” The National Guard leaders wrote that it would weaken national defense and that they have a hard time understanding “how such a colossal shift in strategy can be rationalized.”

The Army and Air Force so far have shared the program expected to field at least 78 cargo aircraft, mostly for National Guard units. Gates’s fiscal 2010 request would cut the number of planes to 38.

“The cuts would have a devastating impact on the National Guard and weaken our national defense,” the adjutants generals wrote. “Whether responding to regional wind and ice storms, hurricanes on the coastlines, or a large scale terrorist incident, the National Guard needs the [C-27J] to timely deliver personnel and emergency supplies to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.”

At press time, a spokesman for Gates could not be reached for comment.

While the adjutants general are expressing concern about the impact of the budget decision, they are also sending a clear message that the Guard and Reserve leaders still are not included in major Pentagon decisions despite Congress’s efforts over the past couple of years to ensure that happens.

“Canceling a program for which there is no alternative and that resides primarily in the National Guard to serve both the Governors and DoD [the Department of Defense] without consulting with the leadership of the National Guard is precisely the type of behavior the National Guard Empowerment Act was meant to end,” the adjutants general wrote in the letter.

As the military representatives answering to state governors, the adjutants general have considerable clout, and their decision to send a strongly worded letter to Congress will likely spur widespread grassroots support for the program.

The Guard leaders call the Pentagon’s decision to slash the program in half and transfer control solely to the Air Force “readiness-eroding” and “unilateral.” They argue that the national security repercussions from this decision “cannot be overstated.”

The letter comes at a critical time, with the House Armed Services Committee tackling the 2010 defense authorization bill this week. Sources told The Hill that the letter results from the annual meeting of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, which took place last week in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

The adjutants general voted at the meeting on a resolution that supports buying at least 78 C-27J planes and splitting the program between the Army and Air Force — as initially planned and approved by Gates himself several months before the new budget request was submitted to Congress in May.

Gates recently told House and Senate defense authorizers that he was a bystander when Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey and Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz discussed and agreed on the change to the C-27J program.

The 2010 budget submission had Gates’s stamp of approval.

The Army in particular has been adamant about buying a smaller cargo aircraft that can go deep into the battlefield to deliver supplies to troops.

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The Army has been relying heavily on its Chinook helicopters for that purpose. Army officials have argued for months that Afghanistan’s terrain, for example, has put great pressure on these helicopters, which are now filling the void of a cargo aircraft that can fly “the last tactical mile.”

The C-27J, under contract to L-3 Communications and Alenia North America, was supposed to replace the decades-old C-23 Sherpas.

Maj. Gen. Terry Nesbitt, the Georgia adjutant general, recently expressed his frustration with the Pentagon’s decision to The Macon Telegraph:

“There’s probably been more studies and staffing of this program than any I’ve seen,” Nesbitt told the paper last week. “If there has ever been a joint program that’s been done right, it’s this one. It went through several years of work. Now, somebody with the stroke of a pen decided to change all that.”

The Army National Guard was expecting to receive the C-27J in 12 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Alaska and Washington state. Each was supposed to receive four airplanes. Alaska was supposed to share its airplanes with Guam.

Under the initial plan, the Air Force was expected to receive 24 of the 78 C-27Js — four planes in six states across the country: Connecticut, Michigan, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio and Mississippi. Under the proposed plan, those states get their planes and the other 14 planes will likely go into the active Air Force.

The Air Force was expected to receive the planes a couple years after the Army, which has already received two C-27Js and has 11 others under contract.

It’s yet unclear how the transfer of program control and responsibility is going to play out. The vice chiefs of the Army and the Air Force were supposed to brief Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn on the transfer plan in May, but that briefing has been pushed back to as late as the end of June.

Adjutants generals from Texas and Florida did not sign the letter.