Charleston is losing at least two of its C-17 cargo jets to a military base in New York amid signs the planes might be ripe for a congressional tug of war.
A New York senator wants more of the planes sent to her home state and has asked the Air Force to consider supplying a larger fleet, a request that could mean poaching from the Charleston Air Force Base.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, last week asked Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to put an additional eight C-17s at Stewart Air National Guard Base, south of Poughkeepsie. The move would double the size of their allocation to 16.
In a letter released by her office, Gillibrand said she understands eight total C-17s are destined for Stewart and are coming from Charleston and McChord Air Force Base in Washington. But even with those additions, there is room for more planes, she said.
"It will increase the geographic distribution of this important national asset, and increase available ramp space at Charleston and McChord, relieving any potential overcrowding," Gillibrand wrote.
Gillibrand, a Democrat, noted that both Charleston and McChord already have in excess of 50 planes each, and that with 13 C-17s still waiting to go into service by the Air Force, the effect of the shift would be minimal.
"Stewart Air National Guard Base has the infrastructure, personnel and community desire to accommodate more than eight C-17s," she also said.
Calls and messages left for Gillibrand's Washington, D.C., office went unanswered Monday.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said they are seeking more information from the Department of Defense about the plane issue. Spokesman Kevin Bishop also said Graham did not want to slight Gillibrand but noted that plane allocation needs are determined by the Defense Department, not the Senate.
Charleston and its alignment of about 60 C-17s has long been identified as the main hub for moving cargo overseas to support the troops in Iraq, and with a more recent emphasis, in Afghanistan. The base's role behind both efforts is so well established that during a March 2006 visit, then Vice President Dick Cheney praised the local C-17 crews, noting "the bulk of air cargo that goes to American war fighters begins the journey right here in Charleston."
A spokesman for Charleston Air Force Base confirmed Monday that two C-17s from Charleston are scheduled to be transferred to Stewart, though a timetable for their departure has not been set. Only the airplanes are being shifted, not the air crews, he added.
Spokesman Thomas Kistler also said the move won't impede the base's current capabilities for carrying material overseas because of the current schedule of movements.
"It won't, because we have a lot more aircraft, plus there are aircraft coming in and going out all the time being assigned to different bases," he said. "Just because we're losing two doesn't mean we won't get them replaced from someplace else," Kistler added.
The Pentagon's Air Mobility Command does intend to shift about seven more planes to Stewart during fiscal 2011 and 2012, Kistler said.
The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce does not calculate the local impact on an individual per-plane basis of each C-17 on the flight line. But as a whole the base is considered a major economic generator across the Lowcountry, carrying a local impact of about $5 billion a year.
Between 7,000 and 8,000 jobs are tied to the Air Force base as well, the chamber said.