Nebraska’s congressional delegation is seeking answers about safety and maintenance at Offutt’s 55th Wing following a World-Herald investigative report.
The investigation showed that the 29 C-135 jets based at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue have been plagued by mechanical problems in recent years. The reconnaissance planes carry out critical missions from operating bases in England, Greece, Japan and Qatar.
Rep. Don Bacon, a retired brigadier general who commanded the 55th Wing in 2011-12, said The World-Herald series accurately portrayed the dire state of maintenance in the Air Force today.
“(The stories) described the reality we face every day,” Bacon said. “I lived it.”
Both U.S. senators and all three House members signed a letter sent Friday to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson asking her to investigate problems revealed in the series. Specifically, they asked her to address the health, readiness and safety of the 55th Wing. They also asked for an assessment of risk to crews on the planes and for more information on the long-term plan for ensuring that the military can carry out the planes’ missions.
“Overall, the series raised several questions of concern, and as such we respectfully request further clarification on the Air Force’s efforts to maintain the fleet,” said the letter. It was signed by Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse, and Reps. Bacon, Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith.
All 29 of the 55th Wing’s C-135 jets were built between 1961 and 1964. The Air Force has said it plans to continue to fly most of the planes until 2050.
The World-Herald series noted that more than 500 C-135 sorties had been cut short because of mechanical failure since the beginning of fiscal year 2012. In at least 216 of those cases, the pilot declared an in-flight emergency.
Many of those aborted missions resulted from issues associated with aging aircraft, such as hydraulic leaks and landing-gear problems. Numerous flights were stopped because of electrical failures, or because of electrical smoke and fumes in the cabin.
Bacon blamed the succession of long 21st-century wars that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He said money that could have rebuilt fleets for the Air Force and its sister services instead was spent to keep combat troops armed and supplied.
“I wish we could just replace the RC(-135)s,” Bacon said. “But it’s going to take awhile, because we had a 20-year, really, hiatus on a lot of modernization in the Air Force with the war in the Middle East and focus on counterterror.”
Sasse said the series points out problems that need to be corrected.
“This is a case study on what happens when Washington gets spun up and loses focus on the literal nuts and bolts that keep our military prepared to keep us safe,” Sasse said in a statement.
Bacon said the Air Force’s need for new aircraft is varied and widespread. Replacing the 55th Wing’s small reconnaissance fleet is a lower priority than replacing old fighters, bombers and tankers.
The 2019 defense authorization bill, at more than $700 billion, includes $9.4 billion for 93 F-35 fighter aircraft, $2.3 billion for 15 new KC-46 refueling tankers, and $1.9 billion for 24 new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters.
Bacon in the House and Fischer in the Senate have sought $617 million to replace or upgrade 55th Wing aircraft. That includes $209 million to outfit three KC-135 jets with radiation-detection equipment for the Wing’s Constant Phoenix program and replacing two existing jets that have among the fleet’s worst maintenance records. The planned replacement jets were also built in the early 1960s, but they would be upgraded with modern engines and avionics.
Fischer and Bacon also want $222 million for two new aerial photography jets used to fly missions under the Open Skies treaty. Signed in 1992, the treaty allows the United States, Russia and 32 other signatory nations to conduct supervised aerial reconnaissance over one another’s borders.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, killed funding from the House version of the bill as a way to punish Russia. Fischer succeeded in keeping the funding in the Senate version of the bill, which means a conference committee will resolve the difference.
Bacon supported the purchase of the two planes in a speech last week on the House floor. He said the two OC-135s that now fly Open Skies missions have woeful maintenance records.
“(The planes) frequently break down in Russia, putting (the crews) in very awkward, hostile situations with Russia at their bases,” he said. “The Air Force wants it. It’s the right thing to do.”
Fortenberry, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said the defense appropriations bill includes a mention of the Open Skies jets but no money to pay for them. The appropriations bill will determine which projects actually are funded.
“That’s highly significant,” Fortenberry said. “It keeps the possibility of funding alive.”
The remainder of the proposed funding is for upgrades to the intelligence gathering systems for some of the Wing’s other planes.
”Keeping our airmen safe has been a number one priority for me since I arrived in the Senate,” Fischer said in a statement. “That means continuing to ensure they have the resources and safe platforms they need to execute their missions.”