WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has decided to shut down an award-winning unit at Tinker Air Force Base that has flown to combat zones for more than 50 years to establish communications systems. About 600 uniformed positions are expected to be lost at the base because of the deactivation.
The Air Force announced Tuesday that the 3rd Combat Communications Group, known as the 3rd Herd, would be eliminated. The unit, which has five squadrons and is part of the Air Force Space Command's 24th Air Force, has won numerous service awards. In 2009, it sent 361 combat airmen to 38 locations, including Iraq.
Col. Joseph Scherrer, commander of the 689th Combat Communications Wing at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, said, “In accordance with the President's National Security Strategy, the Air Force is reducing deployable communications capabilities to match the reduction in combat air forces.
“Our primary responsibility right now is to take care of our airmen and their families in the 3 CCG as they begin to transition to other units.”
The announcement about the 3rd Herd came as the Air Force released personnel changes proposed for all of its domestic bases over the next 18 months. Tinker is expected to lose nearly 700 active-duty positions and 177 civilian jobs; those include cuts on top of the unit deactivation.
The elimination of the unit is the latest in a series of budget-related moves forced by cuts of nearly $500 billion in projected military spending over the next 10 years.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, got word of the Air Force decision Tuesday afternoon, a day after he appeared at an Oklahoma City luncheon with the Air Force's top uniformed leader, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.
Schwartz didn't inform Inhofe or civic leaders at the luncheon about the decision to eliminate the communications unit, which passed a rigorous inspection just last month.
Inhofe said Tuesday he didn't blame Schwartz for not divulging information that was under embargo.
Inhofe, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a fierce protector of Oklahoma's military bases, said the news about the 3rd Herd was “a shocker'' and that he had heard no justification for the decision.
“This is just a meat-ax cut,” Inhofe said. “Why the 3rd Communications Group? They're not just reducing it in size — it's just wham, it's eliminated.”
Inhofe has repeatedly assailed President Barack Obama for the Defense Department reductions, and he said Tuesday that the cuts “jeopardize our future capability at a time of international insecurity.”
Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, said, “I am disappointed with the lack of information and rationale the Air Force has provided to members of Congress for this decision. Personnel and manpower decisions should be based on strategic and operational need. I will press the Air Force in the coming days to demonstrate the reasoning behind this difficult announcement.”
Gov. Mary Fallin also criticized the move.
“It is disturbing that President Obama is so eager to make billions of dollars in funding and personnel cuts to our military even while spending on entitlements and social programs continue to skyrocket,” she said.
Most of the reductions announced so far for Oklahoma bases have been relatively small and the result of broad reorganization efforts. However, a bigger blow was delivered to the Boeing Co.'s plans for Oklahoma City when the Air Force decided to cancel a contract to upgrade the cockpits of C-130s; that decision threatens an estimated half of the 550 jobs the company was set to move to Oklahoma City from Long Beach, Calif.
The 3rd Herd is known for going to barren sites and establishing a range of communications and computer systems, including air traffic control towers that it can staff with its own airmen. Its motto is “Anytime, Anywhere.”
In 2010, the unit won an Air Force-wide award for communications-electronics excellence for the fifth time in the 30-year history of the award.