Springfield State Journal Register

August 12, 2005

Air Guard dispute dismays panel
BRAC commission frustrated by lack of agreement

By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE


WASHINGTON - Despite appeals from the independent Base Realignment and Closure Commission for a compromise, the Air Force's plans to strip the aircraft from 29 Air National Guard facilities across the nation remained a hotly disputed issue at the panel's last public hearing Thursday.

Commission members, who in two weeks will start making decisions on what installations will be closed or reduced, expressed frustration over the failure of the active Air Force and the Guard to come to agreement but vowed to take "decisive action" on the issue.

Units that would lose aircraft under the Air Force proposal include the 183rd Fighter Wing at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield. Its 15 active F-16s would be sent to Fort Wayne, Ind., to become part of another Air Guard unit. The Springfield base would stay open, but 163 full-time jobs would move to Fort Wayne with the jets.

Commission chairman Anthony Principi said the panel had received a legal opinion from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales concerning the governors' claim that under federal law, the Pentagon cannot change or move their Guard units without their permission. He will not reveal what that opinion says until it is analyzed by the commission staff and discussed with the Justice Department.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has filed suit to block the transfer of the F-16s from Springfield, said the state has "a solid legal case" and will continue to fight "because the law and common sense is on our side."

"Taking these F-16s out of Springfield will not only leave our state and our country more vulnerable, but the taxpayers would be stuck with a $10 million tab," Blagojevich said in a statement.

The commission's final hearing focused on the impact of the Air Guard movements on homeland security. However, the Department of Homeland Security refused to send anyone to testify, a decision that drew angry responses from some of the commissioners.

Former Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner said he was "shocked" that the department would not provide a representative "at the highest level" to help them deal with the crucial issue of homeland security.

Pentagon and Air Force officials who did testify insisted that the proposed consolidation of Air Guard aircraft into fewer, larger squadrons would increase efficiency but would not diminish homeland security, even though large areas of the nation would be left without locally based fighters.

Peter Varga, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said the Defense Department "protects the nation as a whole, not on a state-by-state basis."

While fighters would no longer be based in some states, including Illinois, "they are protected" under the proposed realignments, Varga said.

Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, echoed that assurance, saying that he could get control of hundreds of fighters and could assign them to cover any part of the country if intelligence indicated there were a threat.

Commissioner James Bilbray, a former Democratic congressman from Nevada, said reliance on intelligence is not assuring, considering the failure of U.S. intelligence to foresee the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

If intelligence failed to warn of a pending attack, it would be hard to protect an area without fighters on alert nearby, Bilbray said.

"That is the risk we take," said Keating, a former Navy fighter pilot.

Retired Adm. Harold Gehman told Keating that his statement that the gaps in air cover "would not create unacceptable risk" was not much of an endorsement.

Michael Dominguez, assistant Air Force secretary for reserve affairs, and Air Force Maj. Gen. Gary Heckman noted that no Air Guard facility would be closed and that there would be no reduction in total personnel despite the substantial cutback in aircraft. The Guard facilities without aircraft would be turned into "enclaves" that would eventually assume new missions, such as intelligence and space support, information warfare and controlling unmanned aerial vehicles.

They also argued that removal of flying units would not hurt the Air Guard's recruiting and retention because the new missions would be appealing to young people.

But the National Guard's state leaders declared that removal of the flying squadrons would "take the heart out of the Air Guard" in those states and that the Guard "enclaves" that would be left would wither and die before the new missions emerged.

The representatives of the adjutants general - the top Guard officers in each state - presented the commission their alternative plan, which basically recommends rejection of virtually every one of the Pentagon's proposals affecting Air Guard units.

Air National Guard Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association and adjutant in Nebraska, said a rejection of the Pentagon's BRAC proposals affecting the Air Guard would allow them to work with the Air Force on long-term plans to bring in the new missions while the old aircraft were being retired.

Lempke and the other adjutants argued that the Air Force presented no data to prove its claim that consolidating aircraft into larger squadrons would save money and argued that, because the plan would not reduce personnel or close facilities, it probably would cost more.

They also claimed that past experience with moving Guard flying units indicated that 75 to 80 percent of the units' personnel would not move, so the nation would lose those trained people.