Weekly Column

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Here in Nebraska, we are no strangers to bravery and sacrifice. We see it all the time, from our first responders, medical providers, and law enforcement. We also see it in the Nebraskans who serve in our military. Nebraska is home to a special mission, one carried out by the Air Force’s 55th Wing headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base. 

The “Fightin’ 55th” conducts daily operations that provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and precision awareness in critical areas spanning the globe. The information they collect allows our military and civilian leaders to make crucial decisions and keep our country safe.

The planes of the 55th Wing are some of the most important assets in the Air Force. When North Korea tests a new weapon, the WC-135 Constant Phoenix helps detect evidence of detonation, providing valuable insight and warning. To help maintain stability in Europe and monitor Russian activity, the OC-135 Open Skies planes fly above sites across Russia to ensure this information reaches the U.S. and our allies. Meanwhile, the RC-135 provides battlefield intelligence on enemies around the globe.

One of my most important responsibilities as a senator is to provide our men and women in uniform with the resources they need to execute their missions. Many of the platforms used by the 55th are decades old, and while these planes are carefully inspected by the skilled technicians of the Air Force, they require support to ensure they remain safe and reliable.

That’s why I have worked hard to secure funding for several major investments in the 55th Wing.

Each year, Congress passes the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes funds for the Department of Defense. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I play an active role in crafting this bill. This year, I worked to ensure that the Fiscal Year 2019 NDAA authorizes nearly $400 million for the planes of the 55th Wing. These funds will be used to make several major upgrades to the C-135 fleet at Offutt, including substantial improvements to the capabilities and reliability of these platforms. 

Crafting the defense bill often means assigning money to competing priorities. When this year’s bill did not originally include money for new Open Skies planes, I worked with my colleague, Senator Jack Reed, to champion a bipartisan amendment to put that funding back into the bill.

I also coordinated with Congressman Don Bacon to protect this provision as the House and Senate versions of the bill were reconciled. With his prior service in the Air Force and as a former leader at Offutt, Congressman Bacon understands the importance of military readiness firsthand. I was proud to work with my fellow Nebraskan on this effort.

We are all concerned with the safety of our airmen. Recently, I led the Nebraska congressional delegation in a letter to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to clarify concerns that have been raised with the C-135 fleet. I also requested a meeting with the secretary and while we had an encouraging conversation, I want to be absolutely certain both Congress and the Air Force are doing everything possible to keep these planes flying safely.

With this in mind, I secured language in this year’s NDAA that directs the Secretary of Defense to conduct a study of Offutt’s C-135s. The study will examine issues regarding aircraft sustainment, maintenance, and reliability. It will also direct the Secretary to describe an acquisition strategy which will be used to recapitalize each version of the C-135 aircraft. 

Nothing makes me more proud than knowing that each and every day the men and women of the 55th play a pivotal role in keeping us safe and prepared. As a result of this year’s NDAA, major improvements are planned for the wing that will result in hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment at Offutt.

When the final defense bill passes Congress, I’m looking forward to sharing more about how these and other provisions will secure a safer tomorrow for Nebraskans and our country. 

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.