The Air Force’s controversial plan to cut 98 positions in a Washington Air National Guard unit that handles highly classified cybersecurity missions could be reversed after U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks inserted an amendment to a defense spending bill that protects the positions.
And Sen. Patty Murray is considering options to add the same protection for the 194th Regional Support Wing to the Senate version of the bill, the Democrat’s spokesman said.
“This unit does important work,” Dicks, D-Belfair, told The News Tribune on Thursday. “We’re gonna fight this issue.”
The Air Force announced earlier this month it would eliminate the jobs by Oct. 1 as part of its annual budgeting process. That provoked Dicks, Rep. Adam Smith and Murray to issue a joint letter last month to Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, the head of the Air National Guard, asking him to reconsider.
The cuts targeted the wing’s command structure, training, recruiting, retention and equipment positions.
The Camp Murray-based unit – which specializes in cybersecurity missions, intelligence, joint terminal attack control and combat communications – has more than 1,000 airmen, but the lawmakers believed the changes would have crippled the unit’s ability to perform its mission.
“We think this was a terrible mistake,” Dicks said. “Cybersecurity is one of the most important issues we face.”
The military’s ability to protect the nation in the virtual world from terrorists and hostile nations has been the subject of increasing focus. An online attack over the July 4 weekend – widely believed to be the work of North Korea – targeted Web sites for the White House and the Homeland Security, Defense and Treasury departments.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates created a unified U.S. Cyber Command earlier this month that the military expects to begin operating by November.
Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley, visiting McChord Air Force Base on Wednesday, stressed the growing importance of cybersecurity but said the resources required for properly defend the country are still developing.
“It is a warfighting effort we’re involved in today,” Donley said. “It is one that is very important to us, to defend our networks, to be able to fight through cyber-intrusions when they occur, to attribute those attacks, to be able to take appropriate actions in the interest of the United States. It is of rising importance, has the attention of the national leadership and it is of growing importance for the past several years.”
Dicks said he met with Wyatt about the cuts but decided an amendment would provide the surest way to save the jobs.
The House is expected to vote on the bill on July 31, and the Senate will begin debate in September.
The spending bill could be sent to President Barack Obama in September or November.
Dicks and Smith have both framed the action the congressmen took as part of their duty to provide oversight over the military.
“(The decision to cut the jobs) was so wrong-headed, we had to stop it,” Dicks said. “Rarely do I do something like this, but they had bad information about the unit, and we had to step in.”