Wednesday, August 03, 2005

TOP STORY>> BRAC finishes evaluation of bases

IN SHORT: Pentagon probes cost of C-130Js, asks Lockheed for documentation

By John Hofheimer
Leader staff writer

With the future of Little Rock Air Force Base and scores of other installations hanging in the balance, the Base Relocation and Closure (BRAC) commission will wind up its site visits next week, ending three months of hearings throughout the U.S.

While many installations are fighting for their very survival, the Little Rock base is in line to expand its C-130 fleet by 60 aircraft and the number of on-base jobs by as many as 3,898, according to Defense Department recommendations.

North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole wants to keep the 43rd Airlift Wing at Pope Air Force Base or else in a joint force at Ft. Bragg, also in her state. Under the Pentagon’s proposal, the 43rd Airlift Wing now at Pope would be shifted to Little Rock. About 4,300 airmen would be involved.

“While we continue to receive written data throughout the remainder of the process, it is critical that our review and analysis team is allowed the necessary time to thoroughly read, evaluate and incorporate the data that has, to date, been provided,” according to Anthony Principi, the panel chairman.

Commissioners are slated to meet with Air Force and Air Guard leaders Aug. 11 on Capital Hill to resolve lingering issues surrounding the Pentagon’s recommendation to take all aircraft from several Air National Guard bases.

The Arkansas Air National Guard, which is likely to lose its F-16 fighter wing at Ft. Smith, is expected to receive several state-of-the-art C-130Js at the Little Rock base it shares with the active Air Force, including those currently assigned to the Air Force at Little Rock AFB.

The commission’s recommendations are due to the White House by Sept. 8. President Bush has said he would sign those recommendations and forward them to Congress. Neither Congress nor the president can change the recommendations, but may only accept or reject them as a whole.

Meanwhile, although the C-130J may be back in the defense budget, at least three Defense Department investigations are underway regarding the price the government paid Lockheed Martin and the nature of the contract.

The Defense Department’s $4 billion contract for 60 planes was on the verge of extinction earlier this year, when the plane was reported to be too expensive with a spotty record of performing the functions for which it was designed.

To speed the acquisition pro-cess, the Air Force declared the C-130J to be a commercial item even though no commercial market for it exists. This meant that the Air Force was able to bypass federal truth-in-negotiating rules that require a contractor to give the government complete cost and pricing data.

In 1995, a basic C-130J cost $33.9 million. By 1998, it had risen to $49.7 million. Today, the cost is $66.5 million a plane, with some versions edging close to $90 million.
Watchdog groups lobbied for discontinuation of the program, while congressmen from Georgia, Arkansas, Indiana and some other states with a financial stake in the C-130J program, argued that the plane had overcome its flaws.

They added the plane was needed in the war on terrorism and in the future to replace the aging C-130 cargo fleet that plays such a large role in transporting and supplying troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other places.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been critical of the commercial-style contract between the Air Force and Lockheed, and has been active in investigating that relationship.

The Pentagon expects to complete the conversion of Lockheed Martin’s $4.1 billion C-130J cargo aircraft contract into a more highly regulated defense contract by Nov. 15, new chief weapons buyer Kenneth Krieg said in mid- July.

This is significant to central Arkansas residents because Little Rock Air Force Base is considered the premier C-130 base in the world, and C-130 crews and maintainers from the U.S. and abroad are trained there.

Those conducting reviews and investigators are the Defense Department’s Inspector General, the Defense Contract Audit Agency and the Defense Contract Management Agency.

To critics of the plane, Air Force officials have announced that this summer the C-130J made its first combat airdrop successfully, and the weather version of the plane has performed properly in tropical storms and hurricanes.