Tester, Daines question Air Force officials on budget

by Jenn Rowell

Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester asked questions during a Senate hearing Wednesday on the Air Force’ proposed budget and how it relates to Montana’s military missions.

Daines, R-Mont., asked Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh about the status of replacing the Vietnam-era UH-1N Huey helicopters that are used by the Air Force’s three missile wings, including Malmstrom Air Force Base.

“We are working on that in a rather urgent way,” James said.

The proposed Air Force budget includes $18.3 million for the replacement program, and James said the Air Force is working on several acquisition strategies and hopes to have that finalized by April or May.

The budget also includes $25 million for a Service Life Extension Program for a portion of the Huey fleet that involves things such as structural repairs and replacement of key systems based on structural fatigue, system obsolescence and a diminishing manufacturing industrial base. The UH-1N is a 45-year-old helicopter and the oldest in the Defense Department, and the work “is necessary to address concerns identified in multiple studies and to prevent the aircraft from being grounded,” according to the budget justification.

It’s part of a longer year project to enable the SLEP of 30 Hueys that are needed to bridge the gap until the helicopters can be replaced.

James assured Tester, D-Mont., that the Air Force is working to have the Hueys replaced by 2019 and she said she’s pushing to complete the task sooner.

The Air Force is also working toward replacing the current Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile with a new ground based strategic deterrent around 2030, when the Minuteman is expected to reach the end of its lifespan.

Daines asked the status of that project and James said “this is the future of our ICBM force.”

She said the project is funded in this year’s budget proposal and over the next five years.

James said the Air Force is looking at the entire land based missile weapon system as a whole package instead of the individual pieces, a new approach for the Air Force.

Tester said that the Air Force says the nuclear enterprise is a top priority and asked James and Welsh to point to areas in the budget that fund it.

Welsh said there’s several billion planned over the next five years with items like $50 million for New START related programs, $1.6 billion for the Minuteman III modernization and the Huey replacement program, among other items such as the replacement system for the Minuteman.

“There is a lot in here that has to do with the ICBMs,” Welsh said.

Both senators asked about upgrades to the C-130s and their avionics.

Welsh said the program is fully funded and should be fully implemented by 2020, meeting the requirements for the new Federal Aviation Administration and international rules that go into effect that year.

Tester asked about the C-130s that are leaving Pope AFB in North Carolina and if they could come to Montana. Welsh said he’d look into the plan for those C-130s and report back to Tester’s office.

Tester also asked about the firefighting equipment for C-130s, some of which is located in North Carolina, and if that could come to Montana.

The firefighting units, or MAFFs, are not assigned to any units at Pope AFB, but are assigned to the 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard in Charlotte and the Air Force and Forest Service haven’t made any indication that they plan to relocate those systems.