July 19, 2005
Air Guard cuts questioned
BRAC commissioners express skepticism
By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - Members of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission Monday sharply questioned deep cuts proposed for Air National Guard flying units and indicated they may reject the recommendations if they are not changed.
The commissioners were particularly concerned about the possible impact on Air Guard recruiting, the weakening of homeland security and the governors' ability to respond to crises in their states if aircraft are removed from so many Guard units.
One of the units that would be affected is the 183rd Fighter Wing at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, which would lose its F-16 fighters. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has threatened to sue to block the move, which he insists requires his approval under federal law.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell already has filed suit to counter a similar Air Guard change in his state.
One commissioner, retired Adm. Harold Gehman, said he believed the Air Force's "unworkable and unsatisfactory" recommendations on the Air Guard "deviated substantially" from the BRAC rules, "misapplied military value, substituted military judgment when the numbers didn't work out right" and appeared to have violated several laws and defense policies.
The commission is required to reject any of the Pentagon's recommendations if it concludes that the proposed changes "deviate substantially" from the criteria set out in the BRAC legislation.
Although none of the eight other commissioners delivered as harsh a judgment as Gehman, nearly all of them expressed concern about the proposed Air Guard realignments, which make up a majority of the significant changes in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recommendations.
Chairman Anthony Principi said the commissioners have heard a lot of complaints about the Air Guard issue during their base visits and regional hearings.
Those complaints included protests from the adjutants general, the top Guard officer in each state, that they were not consulted on the proposed changes.
"The issues raised are a concern to us as well," Principi said.
He told the Pentagon witnesses, which included senior Air Force and Air Guard officers, that they should be aware "the commission believes a solution is needed."
But just to reject all of Rumsfeld's recommendations affecting the Air Guard would be irresponsible, Principi added.
He urged Pentagon officials to work with the governors and the adjutants general to develop "a solution that serves the best interests of national security and the country."
Michael Wynne, who had supervised the Defense Department's BRAC selection process, said Pentagon officials believe all their recommendations, including those affecting the National Guard, are in accordance "with all applicable laws" and are consistent with actions taken in the previous base closure rounds.
He noted that the commissioners had asked the attorney general for a legal opinion and urged them not to make any decision on the Air Guard changes until they received that opinion.
Several authorities have told the commission the federal law cited by the governors does not apply to the BRAC process.
The top Air Force witness, Lt. Gen. Stephen Wood, said the removal of aircraft from so many Air Guard units was necessary because of an overall reduction in the number of planes, particularly F-16s, and the need to consolidate remaining aircraft into more efficient-sized squadrons.
Illinois would benefit from that consolidation with additional aircraft and personnel moved to Scott Air Force Base.
Wood and Lt. Gen. Daniel James, director of the Air Guard, acknowledged that the adjutants general were not consulted in detail on proposed changes to their units, but had been briefed repeatedly over recent years on the Air Force's plans to consolidate aircraft.
James agreed with the commissioners that removing aircraft from units could hurt recruiting and retention. But he said the "exciting new missions" that will be created at those former flying units could be attractive to other people.
A number of commissioners repeated complaints they had heard that the cuts and relocations of aircraft would hurt homeland security by leaving regions without fighter protection.
But Maj. Gen. Scott Mayes, commander of Air Force units dedicated to homeland defense, said the Air Guard changes had been approved by Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for defense of the nation.