Despite danger to Offutt crews, U.S. House drops new Open Skies jets from 2019 budget

Despite danger to Offutt crews, U.S. House drops new Open Skies jets from 2019 budget
One of the Offutt-based 55th Wing’s OC-135 Open Skies jets in flight. The jets were built in 1961 and have suffered frequent mechanical breakdowns in recent years. (World-Herald News Service)

The House Armed Services Committee has killed the Air Force’s request to spend $222 million to replace two of the 55th Wing’s oldest and most trouble-plagued reconnaissance jets.

The Trump administration had asked for the money in its 2019 budget to buy a pair of new small airliners to fly aerial photography missions over Russia and Ukraine under the 1992 Open Skies treaty. They would replace the Wing’s two OC-135 Open Skies jets, which were built in 1961 and have suffered frequent mechanical breakdowns in recent years.

“The air crews are being stranded in Russia for weeks at a time, put in really awkward situations,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force brigadier general who formerly commanded the 55th Wing.

The replacement jets would have been the first brand-new aircraft for the 55th Wing since 1967.

Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, deleted the funding as part of a package of changes to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. He said the measures were designed to confront Russia over alleged violations of the Open Skies and arms control treaties, expansion and modernization of its nuclear arsenal, and use of new technologies to undermine its neighbors.

Thornberry announced the cuts in a message accompanying the $716 billion spending bill, which was amended and approved on a 60-1 vote during a markup session Wednesday. In written comments for the session, he said he would withhold funding for new aircraft and new photo sensors for the jets until Russia “again complies with the Treaty.” He also demanded Russia agree to extradite Russian nationals who have been charged with interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections.

Thornberry tucked other anti-Russian measures into the bill as well, including funding more U.S. troops in Europe, ending all military-to-military cooperation with Russia, and adding $250 million in lethal aid to Ukraine.

About $500 million in funding for upgrades to other Offutt-based jets — the RC-135 Rivet Joint, the E-4B Nightwatch, and the WC-135 Constant Phoenix — did make it into the bill, said Bacon, who serves on the Armed Services Committee.

Thirty-two countries along with the United States and Russia signed the Open Skies treaty after the Cold War. Member nations are allowed to fly supervised aerial surveillance flights over one another’s territory.

But in recent years, the U.S. and Russia have argued over the flights. The United States objected to restrictions placed by the Russians on flights over certain militarily sensitive regions. The U.S. has placed tit-for-tat limits on Russian flights over Hawaii and Alaska.

Bacon said Thornberry and the committee’s staff cut the funding because they object to the Open Skies treaty. He said they believe buying new Open Skies aircraft is a waste of money.

“They think we don’t get a lot out of it, but the Russians do,” Bacon said.

The Russians have upgraded to newer jets in recent years, but the United States continues to fly jets that frequently break down. Before the Air Force stopped releasing data information about Open Skies to the public in last year, it reported that three of nine U.S. missions over Russia had to be scrubbed in the seven months of 2016 because of mechanical failure.

For example, in March 2016, a U.S. flight over Russia had to be canceled after the OC-135 developed electrical problems on the ground in Khabarovsk, leaving the Offutt-based crew stranded, according to a document obtained by The World-Herald. The crew obtained a waiver to fly out of the country two days later with its most critical generator disabled.

Shortly after takeoff, a fire started in the jet’s pressurization system, filling the aircraft cabin with dense smoke. Wearing oxygen masks, the crew extinguished the fire and cleared the smoke. The pilot declared an emergency and continued the flight without power or radio in the rear cabin. The pilot had to fly over a mountain range before landing safely at a location that was not disclosed in the report.

Bacon said he appealed to Thornberry to keep the funding because the safety of the air crews is at stake.

“You can’t just stop flying it, because it’s a treaty,” Bacon said. “You’re compelling our airmen to fly in these old airframes, and putting them in danger.”

Thornberry didn’t restore funding for the new jets in the 2019 budget, but he did agree to an amendment by Bacon that would require the Pentagon to report to Congress on the state of the OC-135 aircraft by next January.

Bacon said he will still work to get the funding back this year as the bill continues to the full House and the Senate, or perhaps in the following year’s budget.

“We made the case to the (committee) staff. I saw a softening of their position,” he said. “I think we’ve got more fertile ground for 2020.”

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