WASHINGTON -- In December, 90 F-16 fighter jets, the equivalent of three squadrons, sat grounded worldwide for lack of needed repair parts from the Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill Air Force Base.
Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters said today such problems now force the Air Force to award, for a year, more work to outside contractors than is normally allowed by law, preventing it from going to depot bases such as Hill.But Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, blamed the Utah base's problems on political subterfuge by the Clinton administration, which he contends is trying to kill off such depot bases.
"I'm skeptical. We've seen far too much animosity . . . from the administration to depots," Inhofe said in a hearing today. He added he believes that administration officials "envision the eventual collapse of the depot system."
Roots of the problem go back to the 1996 presidential campaign.
When a base-closure commission ordered two air logistics bases in vote-rich California and Texas to close and transfer their work to Hill and other bases, Clinton sought instead to keep the targeted bases open by giving facilities and work in place to contractors.
That launched a three-year fight with Republicans in Congress, but the bases were finally ordered closed and most of the work transferred to other bases last year.
Inhofe contends that the long delays prevented smooth transfer of work and created repair and parts shortages that the Air Force is now using to justify giving more work to outside contractors and further weaken depots.
"I can't help but believe this action would not have been necessary if the administration had not dragged out the competitions and then the transitions of workloads," Inhofe said.
Peters conceded that transferring work from California to Hill has been much more difficult than expected.
For example, he said, equipment used to repair or make parts for many types of aircraft "had to be disassembled, crated and physically moved from Sacramento to Ogden, where it had to be reassembled, tested and calibrated.
"Our schedule was optimistic . . . newly installed equipment required unplanned calibration and repair, and technical data needed for calibration and operation proved to be out of date," he said. That made needed repairs and parts stack up.
With that, not only were a whopping 90 F-16s grounded during December, but 35 F-15s -- the equivalent of 1.5 squadrons -- were grounded in October for lack of another part from Hill. "We can't leave six or seven squadrons of planes on the ground," Peters said.
He added that sister bases in Oklahoma (Inhofe's home state) and Georgia had similar but less dramatic problems with work transfers. And it all happened when demand for repairs and parts was much higher than normal because of constant missions in Kosovo and Iraq.
So Peters said to reduce backlogs with outside contracts, he issued an emergency, one-year exemption to laws that require at least 50 percent of Air Force maintenance and repair work to be performed at depot bases.
"I do not anticipate this is going to be a way of life. I view this as a needed and one-time situation," Peters said.
Inhofe said he worries it could be a continuation of efforts by the administration to kill depot bases and that it will persist. He was backed up somewhat by testimony by the U.S. General Accounting Office, a research arm of Congress.
David Warren of the GAO said the contracts needed to bridge work transfer problems "represent only a minor share of the Air Force contract workload and did not in and of themselves create the need for a waiver" from laws requiring at least 50 percent of work to occur at depot bases.
He noted that the Air Force has "increased the private sector share of depot maintenance work from 36 percent in 1991 to the 50 percent ceiling in 2000 , leaving little room to respond to emergencies."
He said current Air Force plans would keep the load at or near the 50 percent cap for at least four years.