WASHINGTON – An Air National Guard unit based in Niagara Falls will soon be directing unmanned drones on missions around the globe, and that unit also may get to keep at least some of the four C-130 cargo planes that the Air Force was threatening to take away less than a year ago.
That victory for the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station – and particularly for the Air National Guard’s 107th Airlift Wing that’s based there – comes in a fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill that a House-Senate conference committee finalized Tuesday.
Both houses of Congress are expected to approve that measure by the end of the week, setting the structure for the U.S. military for the coming year and giving new life and a cutting-edge mission to a local Guard unit that the Air Force proposed shutting down earlier this year.
Under the bill, the 107th will eventually fly remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs. The bill does not specify exactly which kind of drones the unit will fly. It’s expected that the craft will never actually land at the local base, but instead be piloted remotely by Guard members based in the Falls.
“I am pleased that Niagara retained the RPA mission, which will keep our base at the forefront of the military,” said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and who was intimately involved in the deal to save the Niagara unit. “In addition, most of the C-130s nationwide were restored, which is critical for Niagara.”
The new mission for the Niagara base is a huge win for Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Hamburg, who pressed the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta relentlessly to find a new mission for the Falls unit.
Hochul, who lost her re-election bid to Republican Chris Collins in November, said she was proud to have worked with her colleagues to help the air base. “The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station is critical to our region’s economy and our nation’s security,” she said. “I am encouraged by reports that the Air Force will bring a new mission to the air base. This is a positive step in our ongoing effort to ensure that NFARS continues to play an important role in national defense and homeland security.”
The House-Senate agreement does not specify what kind of drones will be flown by the Niagara unit, but sources close to the Pentagon believe that it will likely be one of two aircraft: the MQ-1 Predator, which can used for surveillance missions and can carry missiles, or the MQ-9 Reaper, which can do the same things but is faster and can carry a heavier payload.
It often takes a year to 18 months for the Air Force to shift a unit’s mission, meaning that the 107th could continue flying C-130 cargo planes through 2013 – and perhaps beyond.
Under the bill, the number of C-130 cargo planes to be flown by the Air National Guard will shrink to 60, from 65. The bill does not specify which units will lose those planes, leaving the decision up to the Air Force.
New York’s senators said they will fight to save the 107th’s four C-130s, one of which is on loan to another base, saying they are critical to disaster response in the Northeast. If the planes could be saved, that would mean the 107th would not lose personnel and might even be able to add some.
The House-Senate conference report “brings us closer to securing the brand-new unmanned aerial drone Remote Split Operations Squadron that could bring in hundreds of new jobs,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “And while the fight to preserve Niagara Falls’ C-130s is still ongoing, this conference report bolsters the longevity of the program at NFARS and will ensure that our troops can continue to rely on these aircrafts that help our heroes in uniform defend our freedom at home and abroad.”
There’s no guarantee, though, that the 107th will be able to keep its four C-130s while also getting a new mission. The fact that the local unit won a new mission could also give the Air Force an argument for removing some, if not all, of the C-130s from the 107th.
The other unit at the base, the Air Force Reserve’s 914th Airlift Wing, will continue to fly its eight C-130s under the House-Senate agreement on the defense authorization bill.
Some veteran advocates of the local base have strongly pressed for the 107th to keep flying C-130s, too. But federal lawmakers have been pushing for a drone mission for the unit because it’s the Air Force’s fastest-growing and most secure type of mission.
And any new mission at all for the 107th is a huge improvement from what the Pentagon proposed in February, which was the elimination of the unit and its 845 employees, including 580 part-time Guard members.
“Kudos to the congressional delegation that has worked so hard to make this happen, along with the state,” said John A. Cooper Sr., vice chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, which has successfully fought to save the base and its units time and again over the last two decades. “To have something positive after where we were in February is just wonderful.”