Wednesday, December 18, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Budget deal helps LRAFB

The budget compromise that passed the House of Representatives last week and is now in the Senate could mean more funding for Little Rock Air Force, where an avionics modernization program for older C-130s could resume sometime next year.

The costly modernization program was put on hiatus earlier this year and appeared doomed after Congress approved automatic across-the-board budget cuts — or sequestration — that hit the military the hardest. Half the cuts would have come from the military, but the congressional budget deal now calls for restoring $62 billion in spending over the next two years. As much as $30 billion will go to the Pentagon, which still leaves $23 billion in cuts in place. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who lead the negotiations in the House with Senate conferees, insists that 92 percent of the sequestration cuts will still go into effect.

That would still leave billions for much needed programs. Easing sequestration could mean millions of dollars spent on the C-130 modernization program for older planes at the air base and elsewhere.

A handful of those older C-130Hs were refitted at the Jacksonville air base before budget cuts ended the program, especially because Boeing, the program’s contractor, has struggled to contain costs. The company’s original bid, which included extensive rewiring of the old C-130s, was originally $5 million for each plane. Even before the program was canceled, the Pentagon warned Boeing that cost overruns are unacceptable.

The avionics modernization program costs about $9 million per plane, or almost double Boeing’s original $5 million bid. Boeing is trying to bring the cost down, but even the higher figure is still much lower than the cost of a new C-130J, which sells for about $70 million. Many of the older planes, especially those in the Air National Guard, can no longer fly because their avionics are out of date.

The Air Force will probably opt for a less expensive communications, navigation and surveillance air-traffic management system.

The latest program can be installed for about $2.5 billion on 184 airplanes, which would be a tremendous boost for the 314th Airlift Wing, the National Guard’s 89th Airlift Wing and the Reserves’ detachment wing, which train C-130 crews at LRAFB. The 19th Airlift Wing, the combat mission at the base, is transitioning to an all-C130J fleet.

Sweden has successfully refitted its C-130s, improving navigation and fuel economy and access to air space as new rules in Europe will restrict older planes in civilian air space starting in 2015.

As funds become available, a dozen or so C-130s could see their avionics upgraded early in 2014 and perhaps another 20 or so at the end of the year. Initially, the program called for improving as many as 200 old planes. Modernizing 100 of them would go a long way toward making America’s C-130 fleet more up to date.

The C-130 still has many friends in Washington. Reconfiguring the aging fleet is a good way to move forward in a tight budget environment. Remember, the airmen at Little Rock Air Force Base and elsewhere are flying their grandfathers’ airplanes.

The modernization program will keep them flying for several more generations, which would be a fitting testament to the durability of the greatest cargo plane in aviation history.