WASHINGTON — Oklahoma lawmakers succeeded on two fronts Thursday to save AWACS planes and a Reserve unit that flies them at Tinker Air Force Base.
The full House approved a defense bill that would protect three of the seven planes that the Air Force wants to retire from Tinker.
Over in the Senate, Sen. Jim Inhofe said a defense bill he helped write would retain all of the AWACS.
“We’re really dealing with a national asset here, both in personnel and in aircraft,’’ Rep. Tom Cole said after the House vote. “Once you lose them, they’re gone.”
Cole, R-Moore, represents Tinker and serves on the committee that will now have to come up with the money to protect the AWACS from the Air Force cuts.
The Air Force, facing tight budgets now and possibly tighter ones in the future, proposed retiring seven of the 27 AWACS at Tinker and dedicating all of the remaining ones to the active duty unit that flies them.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, a retired Navy pilot, authored an amendment to retain three of the planes and keep those associated with the Reserve unit at Tinker that is the only one in the nation that flies AWACS planes.
AWACS stands for Airborne Warning and Control System. The planes are equipped with a rotating radar dome with a range of 250 miles. The planes can detect enemy aircraft and ship movements and quickly relay information needed for battle situations.
“AWACS is the only airborne asset capable of performing command and control and battle space management. ... If you take it out, we can’t fight, and we can’t win,” Bridenstine told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month.
Inhofe, R-Tulsa, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted at a news conference on Thursday that Tinker hosts 27 of the 31 AWACS still held by the Air Force. After the committee drafted its defense bill behind closed doors this week, Inhofe said the members agreed to retain all of the AWACS currently at Tinker.
Retired Air Force Col. Mark Tarpley, president of the Air Force Association chapter at Tinker, praised Inhofe’s efforts and said the plane “remains an essential ingredient in the Air Force’s capability ... Reductions to the size and capability of the AWACS fleet could significantly impact our Armed Forces in future conflict and jeopardize America’s national security interests.”
Cole said the effort to save planes still had a long way to go. The defense bills under discussion now simply authorize the planes, he said; they still have to be funded.
“There are so many twists and turns along the way, it’s hard to declare victory at any one point,” he said.