ELLIOT: The Pentagon’s puzzling decision on paratrooper support

Here’s a puzzler: the Pentagon has decided to dismantle the 440th Airlift Wing at Pope Field in Fayetteville, stating that aircraft based at other locations can do the job just as well as Pope is doing. The problem? Pope Field can’t even keep up with the Army’s requirements as it is. So how does the Pentagon expect to meet requirements from halfway across (or even all the way across) the continent?

Most North Carolinians know Pope as Pope Air Force Base, but it is now officially Pope Field, an Army installation that is part of Fort Bragg where the 440th Airlift Wing — that’s an Air Force Reserve unit — provides direct support for Army units stationed at Fort Bragg. Or at least, they are supposed to provide support.

Lately the 440th has been unable to meet Army airborne readiness requirements. According to North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, the 18th Airborne Corps requires 10,000 parachute jumps per month to be proficient, and the minimum requirement is 8,000. But in March, Fort Bragg was able to accomplish only 6,144 jumps. And to get to that woeful 61 percent proficiency, the Army had to use Army helicopters to support its paratrooper training needs. The eight C-130s at Pope Field apparently could not deliver.

Tillis, a member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, has been bulldogging this issue. He says the Air Force asked him to “suspend disbelief” on the decision. “They told me to accept that it is more cost effective for units to fly from Little Rock, Arkansas, or McChord Air Force Base in Washington State rather than have planes stationed at Fort Bragg.” That’s a pretty tough one to swallow, to be sure.

The Air Force and Army announced the decision via a letter to Congress in February. The letter certifying that both services agreed on the move was prompted by an amendment Tillis sponsored in the latest defense authorization bill. In the letter, the services told legislators that the eight remaining C-130Hs would be removed, and the 440th dismantled, by September.

At the time, Tillis said he would be watching closely to see that the Air Force was meeting Army requirements. His argument is that the decision is bizarre considering the vital role Fort Bragg has in today’s military. Bragg is home to important parts of the military’s Global Response Force, including the 82nd Airborne Division and the headquarters of the 18th Airborne Corps. The 18th Airborne is known as “America’s Contingency Corps” because of its rapid-response role.

The state’s junior senator says he is keeping pressure on the Pentagon to reverse its decision or prove it can provide the support the Army says it needs. Tillis was quoted in the Fayetteville Observer recently as saying he has “watched budget cutters within the Air Force slowly chip away at the ability of the commanders at Fort Bragg to adequately train their paratroopers.”

It is unlikely that Tillis will be able to save the 440th. But he may be able to keep up enough pressure on the Air Force that the Pentagon will at least find a way to support the paratroopers at Fort Bragg in the way they deserve. If we are going to ask them to be the quick-strike force for the nation, we should be willing to give them the training tools they need.