Refueling holding pattern

Posted Oct. 08, 2010, at 11:06 p.m.

The Maine Air National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing has long been recognized as one of the best and most efficient in the country. That should not be overlooked as the military looks for ways to revamp its refueling operations, in part, to save money.

At the same time, however, when the Bangor-based refueling wing was activated in 2003 to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that activation was meant to be temporary, as are all National Guard activations. With fewer U.S. troops in Iraq and the number set to decrease in Afghanistan as well, there will be less demand for airborne refueling.

It is interesting that when soldiers and airmen return from a lengthy overseas deployment, they are greeted with cheers and tears. Few talk about the fact that the men and women are essentially out of a full-time job — a job that required them to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan.

But when a stateside deployment, such as the 101st, ends it is criticized for putting people out of work.

In essence, the refueling wing will be returning to its pre-Sept. 11, 2001, mission as a National Guard, not active duty, unit. That means it will still refuel planes, just not at its current round-the-clock status. It also means fewer people will work full time at the Bangor National Guard base.

The Air Force is scrambling for ways to cut spending in its budget for 2011 after it was told to reduce National Guard costs by 20 percent. This decrease was called for because expenses were expected to decrease as fewer guard members are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both happened more slowly than anticipated.

Wing commander Col. John D’Errico said this week that orders for the approximately 150 full-time Air National Guard members who run the Airbridge program in Bangor have been extended only until the end of this month. Col. D’Errico said that although new orders are issued every year and often come down to the wire, the sudden cutback came as a shock.

KC-135 Stratotankers from the 101st are on call 24 hours a day and flew more than 130 refueling missions last year. They refuel military planes headed across the Atlantic to and from military bases in Europe, Afghanistan and Iraq. This week, 38 missions were scheduled for the 101st and other Airbridge units in New Hampshire, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which are coordinated by the Bangor unit.

Such a change was inevitable at some point in time, but making it so abruptly and with little consultation with state officials —military or civilian — has resulted in many unanswered questions.

For example, with the Bangor unit’s record of efficiency — in April, it refueled Gen. David Patreus’ plane in 34 minutes, an operation the general expected to take two hours, according to Col. D’Errico — how will shifting this work elsewhere save money? Isn’t Bangor’s strategic location as the last base before planes cross the Atlantic an advantage?

The Air Force has pledged to reevaluate its decision in the next couple weeks. Such questions must be answered by this review.

If funding is found to lengthen the 101st activation, it must be remembered that it is a temporary extension. As these missions are no longer needed, it is hard to justify continuing them.

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