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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
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Army helicopters may move to MacDill from St. Pete airport

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In a move that could bring more than $50 million of military construction to MacDill Air Force Base at a time of drastically reduced military spending, the Army wants to relocate two Army Reserve helicopter units from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

Relocating A and F Companies of the 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, would bring 23 UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and upward of 150 personnel to MacDill, creating jobs in Tampa and bolstering the base against efforts to close military installations, according to Rich McClain, executive director of the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance.

McClain said the airport would also benefit, because the helicopters would be replaced by eight fixed-wing aircraft.

“This is good for the base,” said McClain, a retired Air Force colonel who served as commander of the Operational Support Squadron at MacDill. “This brings another aviation unit to MacDill, giving it more flying fighting power if you will. It will increase jobs in the local area and shows the strategic importance of the base.”

The Army has taken the first step in the process. Last month, it requested an environmental assessment on bringing the helicopters to the base.

“The Environmental Assessment is used to evaluate the environmental impacts if the decision is made to relocate the Army Reserve Helicopters to MacDill,” said SMsgt. Joseph Thompson Jr., a spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, in an email statement to The Tampa Tribune. “Other items reviewed during the decision-making process include cost and a timetable for potential relocation.”

The relocation project is estimated to cost between $55 million and $60 million, Thompson said, adding that the environmental assessment will take about a year.

With the Pentagon faced with trimming about a half-trillion dollars in spending over the next decade, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has called for reinstating the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission to find ways of saving money by closing military bases, something Congress has so far refused to do.

Still, mindful that the specter of closings looms large, officials from MacDill, as well as McClain and a former base commander, say bringing the helicopters to MacDill would add another layer of protection for a base that already serves as home to U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Central Command, two air refueling wings, the Joint Communications Support Element and dozens of other units.

Bringing the helicopters to MacDill is “one way to bolster the joint force ethos within the Department of Defense while ensuring all appropriate steps are taken to accomplish the mission,” said Thompson.

“This will help prevent the base from closing,” said Dave “Tanker” Snyder, a retired Air Force brigadier general who served as MacDill’s base commander from 2003 to 2005. “This is one more check mark a base closure committee will look at to see why this base should remain open.”

Beyond that, it shows that there is room to “consolidate more missions” at MacDill, Snyder said.

MacDill serves as home to 16 KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets, which are flown by the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927th Air Refueling Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit.

McClain said the relocation cost will largely be devoted to military construction to build a ramp and operations and maintenance facilities for the Blackhawks near the flightline where visiting fighter jet units come for training missions.

Two years ago, F Company became the first Army medical evacuation unit to deploy since the Gulf War when it headed to Afghanistan.

The Army’s interest in moving the helicopters to MacDill, and bringing fixed-wing aircraft to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, comes at a time when Hagel has announced plans to trim headquarters staffs, which could mean the loss of as many as 1,200 jobs at MacDill between Socom and Centcom.

McClain said the Army is targeting the end of next year to the beginning of 2015 for the moves.

A spokeswoman for the 5th Brigade of the 159th Aviation Regiment at Fort Eustis in Virginia, a higher headquarters from the two Army Reserve aviation companies now stationed at the airport, did not return phone calls.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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