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The Shreveport Times January 31, 2006

Pentagon plans to retire planes, cut guard combat troops

Pentagon's plan to save money likely to affect Barksdale.

By Ana Radelat

WASHINGTON -- To save money to modernize the military, the Pentagon is proposing accelerating the retirement of nearly 40 percent of the nation's B-52 bomber fleet and completely eliminating some other aircraft, including the U-2 spy plane.

Under the Air Force's plan, expected to be included in President Bush's 2007 budget proposal next week, the B-52 fleet would be cut from 94 to 56. The Air Force intends to eliminate other planes, including the F-117 stealth fighter. The moves are expected to save about $2.6 billion.

The plan is likely to affect operations at Barksdale Air Force Base. Barksdale is home to 63 B-52s. Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota has 25, California's Edwards Air Force Base has one and Oklahoma's Tinker Air Force Base has three.

Capt. Todd White, a public affairs officer at Barksdale, said he couldn't comment on the proposal until the plan is released as part of Bush's budget Feb. 6. But he said the Air Force has a history of phasing out old planes and weapons systems and replacing them with new ones.

"It's kind of an evolution, instead of a sheer drop-off cliff," White said.

Barksdale has had B-52s since 1958. The bomber made its debut in 1952 and was accepted into the service in 1955. The base got its first G-model B-52s in 1965 and retired those in the early 1990s, when it got the last model of the bomber, the B-52H. The long-range bombers at Barksdale can carry up to 20 cruise missiles and a heavy payload of other weapons.

The Air Force plan to eliminate 36 B-52s and speed the retirement of other planes is also expected to be part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's proposal for a streamlined, modernized military when he releases the Quadrennial Defense Review the same day the president unveils his budget.

"We must continue transforming the department to get better arranged for speed, agility, mobility and precision in most everything we do," Rumsfeld said at a news conference earlier this month.

A draft of the quadrennial review proposes "reducing the B-52 force to 56 aircraft and use savings to fully modernize B-52s, B-1s and B-2s to support global strike operations."

It also suggested cutting full-time Air Force personnel by 40,000 and speeding the retirement of U-2 spy planes and F-117 fighter planes.

Think tank GlobalSecurity.org founder John Pike said advances in technology make the notion of retiring a large part of the manned bomber fleet less incredible than the suggestion would have been even a decade ago.

"As soon as they put JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) on airplanes, the number of bombers required to destroy targets drastically went down," he said. What used to require a bomber or bombers dropping tons of iron bombs in the hope that one or more would destroy a target can now be done with weapons that can be programmed en route to a target, adapt to changing mission needs, or even be steered independently to changing targets by a controller in an airplane safely miles or even scored of miles away.

The quadrennial review is also expected to include an Army recommendation to reduce the number of National Guard combat brigades from 34 to 28.

Heavy-armored units in Idaho, Louisiana, North Carolina, Minnesota, Mississippi, Tennessee and Washington are the likely targets, said Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, the association for top guard officers.

A story in The Times Jan. 23 announced that the state's 3,000-member 256th Brigade Combat Team, headquartered in Lafayette, would transition from a brigade with one armor battalion and two mechanized infantry battalions to an armored heavy brigade that would have two combined arms battalions and a cavalry sqadron. Shreveport's 1/156th Armor Battalion would become the 1/156th Combined Arms Battalion (Armor) and would almost double in size, according to the reorganization announced in The Times.

Louisiana Army National Guard spokesman Maj. Ed Bush said he had not heard anything about the proposed guard changes noted by Lempke.

The president's budget is expected to call for keeping the National Guard at its current level of about 333,000 troops. But Congress has authorized the guard to grow to 350,000 and may insist on it.

Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, said this is no time to reduce the size of the state's National Guard.

"In the last year, they made a significant contribution in America's war on terror, completing an extremely successful mission in Iraq," Boustany said. "Immediately upon their return, they began helping in the rebuilding of a state devastated by hurricanes. They have proven they are an asset to Louisiana and the United States and should not be reduced by any measure."

Christopher Bolkcom, a defense analyst at the Congressional Research Service, predicted the Pentagon would have difficulty winning congressional approval for some of its proposals. Congress has blocked previous Pentagon attempts to cut its aircraft fleets and weapons systems.

"The Air Force has tried over time to retire individual planes, and Congress has not allowed it," Bolkcom said. "What appears to be new is they're trying to do it all at once, which would seem to be an uphill battle."

Gannett News Service reporter Ellyn Ferguson and Times reporter John Andrew Prime contributed to this report.


Copyright 2006, The Times