WARNER ROBINS -- Leaders at Robins Air Force Base gave reasons for optimism at Wednesday’s first State of the Base luncheon.
Commanders said grievances are down, on-time production is up and 380 jobs that had been slated to be cut are likely to stay.
Those jobs are with the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, a combat-critical unit that’s the only one in the Air Force and is heavily deployed. As part of a plan to replace its decades-old planes, which have the highest flying hours of any in the Air Force, the fleet was set to be cut from 16 planes to 11 starting in October 2016.
J-STARS is operated by the 461st Air Control Wing and the 116th Air Control Wing. Col. Kevin Clotfelter, commander of the 116th, told Wednesday’s audience that the proposed budget for fiscal 2016, which begins Oct. 1, calls for keeping the five planes flying that had been slated to be cut. The cut was expected to mean 380 jobs would be eliminated, but those are now staying, Clotfelter said after the luncheon.
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The budget still has to be approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, but Clotfelter said the Air Force has told J-STARS to plan for keeping the planes flying. He said “world events” prompted the change.
Col. Chris Hill, commander of the 78th Air Base Wing and installation commander, began the discussion with a blunt assessment of the current state of the Air Force.
The Air Force, he said, has the fewest airmen and fewest aircraft since its creation in 1947. When Operation Desert Storm launched, he said, the Air Force had 188 fighter squadrons, and by the end of this year it will have 44. Yet, in 2014 the Air Force performed 20,000 combat sorties and 80,000 airlift missions around the world. The average age of aircraft is 27 years old.
“Your Air Force today is the smallest, and the oldest and the busiest that it has ever been,” he said.
The Air Force estimates that it has 30 percent more infrastructure than it needs, which is driving the call for a Base Realignment and Closure Commission, he said. He said a BRAC would allow the Air Force to make the cuts in needs in a structured, transparent process with the involvement of Congress.
“The Air Force believes a future BRAC is essential to bringing our current infrastructure in line,” Hill said. “A future BRAC is necessary.”
The prospect of a BRAC, specifically how Robins might stack up against other bases in that process, is why community members take a keen interest in how well the base is operating. Commanders gave good news on that front.
Hill said the number of grievances filed by employees, which has been cited in the past as an indicator of poor relations between labor and management, is down almost 80 percent.
“Management-labor relations at Robins Air Force base are improving,” Hill said. “The tone and texture of our interactions are improving. ... We now work together to solve problems before they become grievances. We want to solve problems at the lowest level.”
Seven other commanders of various units at Robins, including a Marine helicopter unit and an Army unit that works with J-STARS, also spoke briefly. Where Hill’s role at the base is considered to be similar to that of a mayor, the other commanders are like the CEOs of a city’s largest companies.
For Robins, the largest employer is the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, where about 7,300 people overhaul the C-130, C-5, C-17 and F-15.
The F-15 section has been a troublesome area in on-time delivery of aircraft. Brig. Gen. Walter Lindsley, the commander of the complex, said an F-15 that was test flown Tuesday will be the first in 22 months to be returned to its user on time. And it’s not an aberration, he said after the meeting. He said the jets in line behind it are on track for on time delivery. Production times for the other aircraft also are improving, he said.
Lindsley said he has a high goal for his organization.
“We are going to be the best air logistics complex on this planet,” he said, drawing applause.
He also said the number of planes at the base for maintenance, a key indicator of the work flow, has dropped from 119 to 83.
Wednesday’s luncheon, held at Second Baptist Church’s Elevate building, was organized by the Robins Regional Chamber of Commerce, which is considering making it an annual event.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.