By G. Michael Dobbs
WESTOVER ARB – Brig. Gen. Steven Vautrain expressed the hope that many of the reservists whose positions are expected to be cut from the 439th Airlift Wing can be maintained by not filling vacancies and re-training.
With one of the airwing’s 16 C-5 cargo planes as a backdrop at the press event on April 28, Vautrain said the cuts are due to the sequestration legislation that was triggered when Congress failed to find the means to reduce federal spending.
He said the announcement is “bad news,” but added, “Westover is going to stay here a long time.”
Eight of the C-5s will be transferred to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, in 2015. Westover will then have eight up-graded C-5 M planes, he explained. The airwing will then lose positions filled by 59 full-time enlisted and 275 drilling reservists on October 2015.
Vautrain said that while he was given a number he has not been told the specific positions. Getting the news at this time will give the airwing personnel time to begin plans to keep as many of the affected reservists.
He noted the reservists in question are “very experienced people.”
Vautrain said, “These changes affect the core of our mission here – our dedicated men and women. These reductions will incur hardships on our people. We will take care of our people; we will place as a many as possible in other positions within the wing and programs will be available to assist those displaced by this change in force structure. We will continue to fulfill our global mobility mission before, during and after these changes.”
The base has about 2,600 reservists, 450 civilian and contract employees as well as 2,200 personnel from the Army, Navy and Marines, the general said.
He anticipates the airwing, which performs about 100 missions a year, will still operate at the same level. Vautrain added the airwing is undertaking three missions at this time.
Vautrain said the Air Force is refocusing its mission and the number of aircraft in light of the president’s new defense strategy and the Budget Control Act’s requirements to cut $487 billion from the defense budget over the next eight years.
He acknowledged there will be a negative impact on the local economy of which the airwing is a major driver. In 2013, Westover contributed $225 million to the region, according to its website.
Chicopee Mayor Richard Kos released a statement after the press conference, “Gen. Vautrain announced today the proposed reduction of the 439th Airlift Wing’s C-5 fleet from 16 to eight planes and the loss of more than 300 active and reservist jobs at Westover as a result of Pentagon budget cuts and sequestration. While the nature of the cuts are disheartening, knowing they will not take place until October of 2015 provides an opportunity for the city to work with both state and federal officials to address their impact. We will work with Congressman [Richard] Neal and our state delegation to pursue all options available for Chicopee and Westover.”
Neal met with Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Deborah Lee James on April 29 and released a written statement: “I had a good conversation with the Secretary Air Force today to discuss the future force structure of Westover Air Reserve Base. As dean of the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation, I invited her to meet with the entire delegation and local, state and federal stakeholders so we can speak with one voice about Westover’s importance to the region and the nation. After Gen. Vautrain's announcement yesterday, I thought it was important to contact Secretary James quickly and schedule a meeting to promote and protect the base in Chicopee.
“For more than two years, there has been speculation about a potential reduction in Westover’s force structure. Because of budget cuts and sequestration, virtually every military base in the country faces force structure reductions. Approximately $487 billion is required to be cut from the defense budget over the next eight years.
He concluded, “From my perspective, the Westover announcement was merely a recommendation that has yet to be considered by Congress. I strongly believe the restructuring process remains very fluid. The House and Senate Armed Services Committee will have a significant voice in this debate and so will the entire Congress. I look forward to the delegation meeting with the Air Force Secretary so we can reaffirm our collective support for Westover and all the military bases in Massachusetts.”