Springfield State Journal Register

August 27, 2005

183rd losing its jets
Pentagon plan approved 8-1


By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Despite concerns about the Air Force's failure to consult with state officials, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission late Friday approved most of the proposed changes to Air National Guard units nationwide, including transferring the 183rd Fighter Wing's F-16s from Springfield to Fort Wayne, Ind.

Although other National Guard functions would remain at the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport installation and a jet engine repair activity would be added, the move of the 15 fighters, their pilots and maintenance personnel would result in the net loss of 163 military and civilian defense positions from Springfield.

The commission approved the Pentagon's recommendation to disband the 183rd on a vote of 8-1 as it worked late into the evening to finish its grueling task of dealing with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recommendations to close or realign 62 major installations and 775 smaller facilities.

Commissioner Samuel Skinner, who is from Illinois, voted against the move, noting that Springfield had a higher military value rating than Fort Wayne.

Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, said he was disappointed with the decision.

"This decision goes against both the military value and economic criteria, which is supposed to be used as the basis for this decision. While the 183rd technically is not closed, the mission of the unit is certainly emasculated with this decision. This is a flying unit, and now it has no planes," he said.

"... I do not believe closing military bases around the country in a time of war does anything to provide our troops what they need, but, unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening. This will dislocate families. It will hinder recruiting. And it will lead to the erosion of public support in communities subject to closings and relocations.

"I do not believe now is the time to close bases; this entire process makes no sense, and I certainly do not believe the state of Illinois should be left with no Air Guard fighter planes."

Illinois' two Democratic U.S. senators, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, issued a joint statement saying, in part: "While we disagree with some of the commission's decisions, we will continue support our Illinois installations and look for ways to retain jobs through the Defense Department's implementation of the BRAC Commission's recommendations."

After the F-16s move to the Fort Wayne airport, the Guard facility at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport will retain the expeditionary combat support elements, the 217th Engineering Installation Squadron and the Illinois National Guard headquarters. A jet engine intermediate repair facility will be move to Springfield from four locations, bringing in 22 military personnel.

If the commission's actions are approved by President Bush and not blocked by Congress, the changes must take place within six years. But the movement of aircraft is expected earlier than that.

Whether any of the approved Air Guard relocations will take place was thrown into doubt when a U.S. district judge in Philadelphia ruled Friday that the Pentagon cannot move or eliminate National Guard units without the permission of the affected state's governor.

Judge John Padova ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell to block the proposed shutdown of the 111th Fighter Wing at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station. He called the Pentagon's recommendation on the 111th "null and void" because it lacked Rendell's approval.

But the BRAC commission had approved that action earlier in the day, before the decision was announced, and continued to approve other of Rumsfeld's Air Guard recommendations into the evening.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich also has initiated legal action to save the 183rd Fighter Wing. Before the commission acted on the Springfield unit, the governor vowed to "fight it out in court if the decision is the wrong decision."

Afterward, he issued another statement saying: "First the Pentagon ignored the law. Now the BRAC Commission has ignored the facts and the criteria it was supposed to follow and apparently is paying off political debts in states like South Dakota, Florida and Texas (where recommended base closings were rejected).

"Taking the F-16s out of Springfield would compromise our ability to protect the people of Illinois and will impact the safety and security of the entire Midwest. This indefensible decision would make our homeland less secure and cost our taxpayers $10 million. We have the facts and, as was proven today in federal court, the law on our side, which is why I will continue our fight."

The U.S. Justice Department provided the commission a legal opinion earlier this month arguing that the law establishing the BRAC process superceded the separate federal statutes that require governors' to approve changes or relocation of their Guard units.

Although the administration declined to comment immediately, the Justice Department is virtually certain to appeal the Pennsylvania decision because of the potentially sweeping impact of that ruling.

The BRAC recommendations released May 13 by Rumsfeld would affect 54 Air Guard installations and would leave 29 without a flying unit.

The Air Force has argued that it will be cutting its total inventory of aircraft sharply as it retires old planes and brings on new, more capable weapons. In that process, the Air Force leaders say, they must eliminate active duty, Guard and reserve squadrons and consolidate the remaining aircraft into fewer, more efficient units.

They promise to replace the traditional flying units with "emerging missions," such as information operations, intelligence support and unmanned aerial vehicle operations.

But Guard officials from the states have complained that they were not consulted on the Air Force plans for their units and claimed that the changes are taking the "air" out of the Air Guard and will make it difficult to retain existing personnel or recruit new Guard members. And, they have noted, the active Air Force has not given them any idea what new missions will replace their lost flying duties.

The governors and their adjutants general, or TAGs, - the top Guard officer in each state - also complain that the removal of F-15 and F-16 fighters reduce their homeland defense capabilities, and elimination of some C-130s take away a valuable weapon against forest fires.

Defense officials insist, however, that they will be able to protect all parts of the nation with the remaining fighters and that the C-130s able to do firefighting water drops are concentrated in several locations and are dispatched where needed.

For instance, the 182nd Airlift Wing at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport would get four more C-130s from an Air Guard unit in Nashville, Tenn., under the extensive series of relocations the commission approved Friday. The result for Peoria would be the addition of 14 military and 21 civilian jobs.

As the commission approached the Air Guard issue, Commissioner Lloyd Newton, a retired Air Force general, noted, "It has become clear to us that the state TAGs did not feel they had been full players in the process."

But Newton said it was unlikely the redistribution of aircraft would have been different had they been consulted.

Newton urged the Air Force and Air Guard officials to work "to rekindle the close relationship we have always had" between the active and reserve components of the Air Force.

After the commission finishes voting on the hundreds of individual actions, its staff will prepare a detailed report of the panel's recommendations that must be presented to Bush by Sept. 8. The president then has until Sept. 23 to approve or reject the recommendations in total. He cannot change the commission's work.

Despite the major changes the nine-member panel made to Rumsfeld's recommendations on active military installations, Bush is expected to approve its action.

The report then goes to Congress, which can only block the commission's recommendations if both chambers pass resolutions of disapproval. That never happened in the four previous rounds and is not expected to happen this time.