Air Force One will touch down in a swirl of defense controversy in Mansfield, Ohio, Wednesday as President Obama makes a third campaign trip in four weeks to the battleground state.
“If President Obama has his way, his Air Force One arrival would be one of the final flights into Mansfield-Lahm Airport,” claims Sen. Rob Portman, who is often a surrogate campaigner in Ohio for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The Mansfield News Journal has run a series of stories and editorials expressing local worries that the air mission of the 179th Airlift Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard will end if proposed Pentagon budget cuts close it down. The local paper quotes Vice Commander Col. Michael Howard as saying he will park the wing’s C-27J aircraft on the tarmac in full view of Air Force One to make a point to the visiting president. The 179th has four of the planes, two currently deployed in Afghanistan. The newspaper reports the Air National Guard in Mansfield employs more than 200 airmen and more than 550 part-time employees.
The White House insists there is no plan to close down the Air National Guard base in Mansfield. In fact, deputy press secretary Josh Earnest tells ABC News, “the President is committed to working with the Department of Defense to find a mission for Mansfield Lahm Air National Guard Base, so that the men and women who serve there can continue to make their important contribution to our national security.”
“There is not an inch of Ohio that the President does not love to visit, ” Carney told his daily White House briefing, describing the campaign stops President Obama will make in Mansfield and later Akron.
It is not just Ohio Republicans who are seeking to protect the Air National Guard mission. A Republican National Committee spokesman is circulating an email quoting Democratic Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, an Obama supporter, as calling the proposed cuts ” penny-wise but pound foolish” and pledging to save the program.
But the 179th Airlift Wing may be doomed. It was targeted for elimination once before during the 2005 base closings process; now its primary aircraft — the C-27J are slated to be decommissioned.
The Pentagon budget documents at the beginning of 2012 declared the plane is no longer needed or cost efficient:
“The C-27J was developed and procured to provide a niche capability to directly support Army urgent needs in difficult environments such as Afghanistan where we thought the C-130 might not be able to operate effectively. However, in practice, we did not experience the anticipated airfield constraints for C-130 operations in Afghanistan and expect these constraints to be marginal in future scenarios,” the Pentagon writes. “Since we have ample inventory of C-130s and the current cost to own and operate them is lower, we no longer need nor can we afford a niche capability like the C-27J aircraft. The Air Force and the Army will establish joint doctrine relating to direct support.”