WASHINGTON — Two Oklahoma lawmakers who help set defense policy on Capitol Hill said Wednesday the proposal to reduce the number of AWACS airplanes at Tinker Air Force Base and inactivate a Reserve unit would weaken a key military capability.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Tom Cole, who serves on the House panel that dictates Pentagon spending, said the aircraft recently had been dispatched to areas near Ukraine.
Inhofe, of Tulsa, said, “This aircraft is essential in detecting enemy aircraft; for example NATO is using AWACS to provide support and assistance in Ukraine. It is my belief that the Air Force will find that it is ill-advised to proceed with reducing our AWACS by 25 percent when the world is becoming more dangerous by the day.”
Inhofe, who is fighting proposed reductions in other fleets — including JSTARS, another command and control aircraft — said he asked top Air Force officials to re-examine the proposal to eliminate seven of the 28 AWACS planes at Tinker.
Air Force Reserve officials said Tuesday the proposal would mean inactivating the 345-member 513th Air Control Group at Tinker; the unit has an $18 million annual payroll and is the only one in the Air Force Reserves that flies and maintains the E-3 Sentry AWACS airplanes.
If Congress approves the Air Force proposal, the AWACS mission would be the sole responsibility of the active-duty 552nd Air Control Wing at Tinker.
Congress, which set the budget caps under which the Defense Department is operating, can block or revise the administration’s proposals. Lawmakers routinely set their own priorities for weapons systems and other defense policy matters — and haven’t hesitated to reject the administration’s repeated requests for base closures, among other things.
Cole, R-Moore, voted for the two budget agreements — in 2011 and 2013 — that led to the current budget caps on defense and other discretionary spending. He said Wednesday that the president needs to work with Congress to ensure the military’s ability to respond to enemies isn’t diminished.
“I am disappointed that the president’s budget proposal cuts aircraft that are high-demand assets in protecting our nation,” said Cole, whose district includes Tinker.
“AWACS aircraft have been dispatched by NATO to fly over Poland and Romania to monitor the crisis in the Ukraine, stressing the need for more reconnaissance capability rather than less in this dangerous world.”