Delegation urges Air Force to retain MANG F-15s

Great Falls Tribune

by Peter Johnson

Montana’s U.S. senators and a Great Falls business delegation met with top Air Force officials Tuesday to urge retention of the Montana Air National Guard’s F-15 mission in Great Falls, or alternatively, that MANG be considered for a pilotless flying mission in addition to the proposed C-27J mini-cargo planes.

Businessman David Weissman, chairman of the Central Montana Defense Alliance, said the meetings went well with Air National Guard Director Gen. Harry Wyatt and other top officials involved in assigning missions.

“They listened to our concerns, but didn’t have any immediate replies,” Weissman said. “We asked them to provide a full set of information to show how the expense and retraining time of moving the F-15 mission from Great Falls to Fresno would be right for America and Montana.” The Air Force confirmed in mid October its plans to shift MANG’s F-15 fighter mission to the Fresno National Guard in California. MANG, based at Gore Hill in Great Falls, is the Air Force’s preferred location to get four C-27J transport aircraft, a small maneuverable transport plane. MANG officials have said the change in flying missions could result in a 30 percent reduction in MANG’s personnel. The base has 900 personnel. About 300 work full-time.

Both changes require completion of environmental reviews next year.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer Monday sent Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Gen. Norman Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, a letter pressing for information about the proposed shift of the F-15 from the Montana Guard and expressing concerns about the potential loss of jobs and unnecessary spending.

They also urged the Air Force brass to consider placing a mission of remotely piloted aircraft in Great Falls to supplement the smaller C-27J mission.

“The Air Force needs to understand that for Montana, MANG is not just a military mission. MANG is part of the Great Falls community,” Baucus said. “The new C-27J mission is a strong flying mission. But, each and every job on Gore Hill is important to Montana, and the Air Force leadership in D.C. needs to explain why millions of tax dollars should be spent moving the F-15s to California. “ “I appreciate General Wyatt coming in to talk with us, because we’ve got some serious concerns,” Tester said. “We were able to have a frank conversation about the critical role MANG plays in keeping our country safe. I look forward to continuing to talk and make sure any decision made is the right one for MANG and for Montana taxpayers.”

“I am very proud of the men and women of the Montana Air National Guard,” said Schweitzer. “These loyal, hard working folks, their leadership and their civilian partners deserve a straight answer from the Air Force and National Guard Bureau about their future.”

Weissman, accompanied by businessman Dave Bertelson and Great Falls Airport Director John Faulkner, said the Chamber of Commerce military-boosting committee “is so thankful” to the congressional delegation and governor for supporting MANG.

“To us, it does not make good business sense to move F-15s to California while MANG has a proven track record of providing quality national security,” he said.

“It’s nice to hear people believe in us and feel compelled to tell our story,” said Brig. Gen. Brad Livingston, commander of the Montana Air National Guard. He noted that Guard plays both a federal and state role since its members can be called up to deal with fires and other state emergencies.

Nothing has changed regarding Air Force plans announced in October to shift MANG’s F-15s to Fresno and give the Great Falls unit a smaller force of C-27Js, Livingston said.

“In the meantime, we’re performing our F-15 training flights and pulling alerts in Hawaii,” he said. “We can’t miss a beat doing our job even though our defense role may change down the line.”