MANSFIELD -- The flying mission of the 179th Airlift Wing based at Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport again to appears to be in jeopardy.
The U.S. Air Force has announced plans to dial back the number of older C-130H models in its fleet, eight of which call Mansfield home as part of the Ohio Air National Guard unit.
Taking aim at the 179th, and its three-decade old aircraft, is nothing new for the Air Force, including a decision (later reversed) to shutter the unit during a Base Realignment and Closure Commission effort in 2005.
That reversal came after an all-out defense of the base by local and state officials, who successfully lobbied for a new C-27 mission and its smaller aircraft until the Air Force returned the larger aircraft to the 64-acre base on the city's north side in 2012.
There is no official BRAC in 2021, but the Air Force budget plan to divest itself of at least 50 of the C-130H models in favor of the newer C-130J -- and larger transport aircraft like the C-17 -- threatens units such as the one in Mansfield, which has had a flying mission since its founding in 1948 as a fighter wing.
"It's a 'soft BRAC,'" said retired Brig. Gen. Rich Green, the former commander of the 179th who later served in the Ohio Adjutant General's office in Columbus and then as the legislative director for the National Guard Association of the United States in Washington, D.C.
Green, the chairman of the Mansfield Military Affairs Council, told Richland Source the Air Force plans to make its changes through the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which specifies the annual budget and expenditures of the U.S. Department of Defense.
Part of the Air Force plan is to supply some National Guard units with the newer C-130J model aircraft, but the 179th is not on that list.
Instead, in November 2020, the Air Force announced the Louisville Air National Guard Base in Kentucky; McLaughlin ANGB in West Virginia; Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Texas; and Savannah ANGB in Georgia were the preferred locations to receive C-130J aircraft to replace C-130Hs, pending the outcome of environmental assessments.
The Air Force said it evaluated all C-130J candidate locations against objective criteria based on mission requirements. The preferred alternatives were the highest scoring locations based on that criteria, the Air Force said.
Kentucky, West Virginia and Texas will begin receiving eight aircraft, each in 2021. Georgia will receive new aircraft if they become available in the future, the Air Force said.
The Air Force budgetary maneuver has gotten the attention of Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, key defenders of the unit during the BRAC battle, as well as U.S. Rep. Troy Balderson, whose district includes part of Richland County.
All three said they will fight to maintain the flying mission, even as the base in Mansfield is one of two finalists for an Information Warfare Wing, a decision which could be announced later this year. If Mansfield is selected, the unit will transition to the non-flying IWW by 2022, according to state officials.
Mansfield is one of two being considered for the IWW, with the other being Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Minnesota.
"The IWW is not a guarantee," Green said. "If we are not pursing both at the same time, we could be left high and dry with nothing to do."
Officials estimate the IWW will require about 600 personnel, compared to the 1,000 part- and full-time airmen who call Mansfield-Lahm home.
Brown said the local Air Guard Base is a key part of the nation's defense.
"I am committed to ensuring the base and the Ohioans who serve there have the resources they need to keep us all safe," said Brown, a Mansfield native.
"Under the last (presidential) administration, I led a bipartisan coalition in calling for new missions at the 179th. I also pushed for upgrades to the C-130H planes and I will continue to do same under the Biden administration," Brown said.
"Ohioans serving Mansfield Lahm have proven their ability to get the job done and I will continue fighting to make sure they have what they need," Brown said.
Emmalee Cioffi, a spokesman for Portman, said the senator was also pushing back against the Air Force plan.
"Senator Portman has been a strong advocate of the 179th since coming into office in 2011," said Cioffi, "and has made annual visits to the base to receive updates and meet with the command. (Portman) has long been a champion of the C-130 modernization program while in the Senate."
She said Portman helped lead an Ohio delegation letter in the Spring of 2020 for Mansfield to be chosen as a designated unit for the Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron and continues to push for that decision.
Green said National Guard policy is to maintain at least one flying unit in each state.The fact Ohio has four can make the state a target for the Air Force, he said.
The Buckeye State is also home to the 121st Air Refueling Wing's KC-135 Stratotanker at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Columbus, 180th F-16 Fighter Wing near Toledo, and the 178th Wing in Springfield, which transitioned from fighter aircraft to MQ-1B Predator Unmanned Drones.
"Unfortunately, the ability of the State of Ohio to support several flying wings is both a blessing and a curse," Green said.
The retired general said a 2018 Mobility Capabilities Requirements Study, done by the U.S. Transportation Command, identified that the Air Force should maintain a minimum of 300 C-130 aircraft. He said the Air Force is seeking another study, which they hope will provide a "number more to their liking."
The workhorse C-130, which can carry a payload of 42,000 pounds and a maximum 92 troops, is known for its ability to operate on shorter, more narrow runways than other transport aircraft, including dirt strips. The C-17, by contrast needs a runway at least 500 feet longer and 40 feet wider.
"The Air Force believes the C-17 can pick up the slack," Green said. "There is no way the C-17 is primed and ready to do the same missions as the C-130."
Portman agrees with the call for a new MCRS, according to Cioffi.
"There is a very good possibility that a new study will reinforce the previous determination to maintain a strong C-130 fleet," Cioffi said. "For example, as the U.S. Marine Corps looks at future possibilities with Chinese aggression, it is already being determined they will need more airlift capabilities for such missions that a C-5 or C-17 could not handle.
"So, as we look at current operations and future defense threats, a new study has potential to be beneficial to the strengths of the 179," Cioffi said.
Balderson arranged a visit to the 179th in 2019 with fellow Ohio Rep. Michael Turner, then the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee. That slot is now occupied by Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers and Balderson said he would seek to have him also visit the base and learn more about the 179th's value.
"I am going to work with this new (Biden) administration to make sure we don't lose this (unit)," Balderson said. "If something does happen (with the C-130s), we want to make sure we can replace it with something else."
Balderson said visits from leaders like Turner and Rogers are key.
"That was a great example, when we had Congressman Turner come to the base, tour the facility and talk to the (wing commander)," Balderson said. "The more people we can get to advocate for the 179th, the more successful we can make it. We are really pressing hard."
Balderson, a Zanesville resident, said local public support will again also be a key to protecting the 179th.
"The community has a great impact on these decisions, including county and city officials. The more outreach all of us can do, and your local leaders see this, that's so vital to have that," Balderson said.
"It's great to have emails or letters that we can take to the table. It can can have a huge impact on these decisions. It gives me evidence about what we have here in Mansfield and the enthusiasm the community has for it."
Even without new C-130J models, Green said the 179th's current C-130H models are still in great shape, maintained by crews with more experience than found in the active duty Air Force.
The Air Force has relied upon some version of the aircraft since 1956. Originally designed as a troop, medevac, and cargo transport aircraft, the C-130 airframe has found uses in a variety of other roles, including as a gunship (AC-130), for airborne assault, search and rescue, scientific research support, weather reconnaissance, aerial refueling, maritime patrol, and aerial firefighting.
"These C-130Hs at Mansfield are good to go for a long time," Green said, adding the local aircraft have already undergone many updates and modifications. "They can be used for a long time to come."