BANGOR, Maine — A top-ranking U.S. Air Force official visited the Maine Air National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing on Thursday as state congressional leaders fight to stave off significant cuts to a key program at the base.
Some cuts, however, already have been made.
Gen. Raymond Johns Jr., commander of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, accepted an invitation from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to visit the Bangor facility as part of an assessment to determine the future of what is known as the Airbridge program.
Last month, the program, which since 2003 has provided in-air refueling to military aircraft headed to and from Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe, was targeted for cuts that could affect as many as 150 jobs at the Bangor Guard base. Members of the 101st — known as the MAINEiacs — learned this week that approximately 20 Guard members have been told that their positions would not be funded past Nov. 30.
After a closed-door meeting with Collins, Gov. John Baldacci, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and 101st Wing Commander Col. John D’Errico, Johns spoke to members of the 101st about the importance of their continued mission.
“You sure know the business up here. You’re pros,” Johns said.
He also emphasized the tremendous budget pressure the Air Force faces, particularly now that troops have withdrawn from Iraq and as more and more prepare to leave Afghanistan.
Collins, who visited the base in early October after her office learned that the Airbridge program was in jeopardy, said its long-term future still has many budget-related hurdles, but she also said the general was impressed with Bangor’s operation.
Even in peacetime, the work would not go away entirely.
“Why not do it in Bangor?” the senator said.
A current Senate appropriations bill includes an additional $378 million for the Air Force, which would keep the Airbridge program running at least through September 2011. The House version of the bill does not include the additional funding, something Michaud said he hopes will be addressed soon. As it stands right now, the program, which also includes bases in New Hampshire, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, will be funded only through Nov. 30.
One of the things Maine’s political leaders stressed to Johns on Thursday was the short notice given early last month to airmen and women about the possible cuts to the program. At first, the 101st was told orders would be renewed only for seven days. They were then extended until Oct. 31 and, more recently, to Nov. 30.
“I’m disappointed they had to live week to week not knowing,” Michaud said.
Added Baldacci: “They deserved to be treated better.”
From Johns’ standpoint, one thing was clear: The Air Force is going to continue looking for cost-cutting efficiencies.
Collins said the beauty of Bangor’s operation is its efficiency. The 101st does more with limited resources than any other base in the country, she said, and she and D’Errico provided Johns with numbers to back up that claim. Bangor also is strategically located to provide in-air fueling services to aircraft heading overseas or re-turning.
In addition to the air fueling program, a total of about 850 Guard members are on the Bangor base at any given time, most engaged in routine training, maintenance and support positions.
Without the active-duty personnel that carry out the refueling program, the 101st could be forced to give up the service for military aircraft and revert to its pre-2003 status as a training unit.