Tuesday, March 03, 2015

EDITORIAL >> More funds for air base

“Sequestration is the dark cloud up ahead, and it could affect us in readiness,” Col. Patrick Rhatigan, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, recently told The Leader.

Rhatigan said, eventually, the Air Force has to get back to pre-sequestration funding levels and beyond. “We took a hit in Little Rock on flying, then got some relief in FY 2015, and we thought we turned the corner,” the colonel said.

While budget cutbacks or another round of sequestration could slow modernization and infrastructure replacement, three major projects worth $133.6 million are underway at Little Rock Air Force Base and due for completion by 2017.

Those include rebuilding a 50-year-old runway and adjacent landing strip. Sundt Construction of Tempe, Ariz., is the contractor. In addition, the construction of a fifth C-130J simulator is underway as the 19th Airlift Wing transitions to an all C-130J combat unit. They needed a new 12,000-foot runway and adjacent landing strip, along with the construction of a fifth C-130J simulator as the wing continues its combat missions in Asia and Africa in the war against al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State.

Currently, the base has four C-130J simulators, and an annex to house the fifth is due for completion by November. Alessi-Keyes Construction of Maumelle is the contractor and the cost of the project is $4,218,503.

The base has eight aircraft and 12 crews deployed in Afghanistan, one airframe and two crews flying in support of the Combined Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa, supporting that operation as they counter the violent extremist groups in East Africa and two flying out of central Europe, flying missions and sitting alert for places like Libya, Rhatigan said.

Although the size and scope of all other construction at the base is overshadowed by the construction of the runway and airstrip, there’s still more construction going on. To keep the planes flying, they need fuel to stay in the air. The new C-130 fuel-cell building project is 74 percent completed.

As part of their job, fuel-systems repair airmen here immerse themselves in highly flammable fuel tanks to keep C-130s flying. The team of more than 80 enlisted airmen works three shifts around the clock to get the job done.

They will service, maintain, repair and, if necessary, replace the plastic wing bladders that actually hold the fuel. The original awarded amount in June 2013 was $20,869,000, but the scope of work increased. The new facility replaces Hangar 222, a 1950s-era building that was not designed for the C-130.

Construction of the new two-bay fuel-systems maintenance hangar project is on schedule for November completion. That new building is being constructed on a design-build contract by Ross Construction Corp. of Tulsa for $21,464,972.

But sequestration still looms, with no assurance that there won’t be another round of sequestration imposed by Congress this year. Including the National Guard and the Reserve, the Air Force seeks a troop strength of 492,000 airmen. The Active Air Force would account for about 311,000 of that, the lowest since the Air Force was formed in 1947 with 307,000.

“It’s easy to get caught up in sequestration and what’s the next plane,” Rhatigan said. “The main thing is to let people know we’ve got to make sure the airmen are focused on the missions.”

As Washington politicians haggle over the defense budget, it could take years before our base gets another major infusion of funds. The $133.6 million in improvements will make LRAFB better prepared for the tasks ahead.

Our airmen have been flying into hot spots on three continents almost nonstop since 9/11. They deserve all the improvements and all the help a grateful nation can give them.