State Journal-Register

November 04, 2003

LaHood wants to protect Illinois military bases

DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The next round of military base closings isn't until 2005. But U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, wants to be prepared.

He's putting together a committee of Springfield and Peoria officials to bolster the case for keeping Air National Guard bases in those communities.

He argues the F-16 fighter jets in the Springfield-based 183rd Fighter Wing and the C-130 cargo planes in Peoria's 182nd Airlift Wing should be retained for their military value as well as their economic benefit to the central Illinois region.

LaHood said he fears they might be targeted because they have capabilities similar to those at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville.

"Our goal is to put together as good as possible a case for maintaining the presence of the C-130s in Peoria and the F-16s in Springfield so there is no loss," LaHood said.

While there is no evidence that those bases are any more or less vulnerable than others, every base will be reviewed in the upcoming process, according to Air Force and Defense Department officials.

"All military installations will be equally evaluated," said Air Force spokeswoman Mirrian Miclat. "Right now, it's all fair game."

There is no base-closure list yet. The Defense Department won't even propose criteria for selecting facilities for elimination until Dec. 31.

Yet communities around the country with bases are preparing for the worst.

Illinois has hired former Democratic Sen. Alan Dixon, who chaired the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission, to lead its effort to save Scott Air Force Base, the state's only major military facility.

Scott hosts the Air Mobility Command and the U.S. Transportation Command as well as the 375th Airlift Wing, which does medical evacuations.

LaHood said the Springfield-Peoria coalition might hire a consultant to help make its case. LaHood met with business leaders and retired military officials in his Springfield office last month to gather ideas. He plans to meet with an expanded group, including local elected officials such as the Peoria and Springfield mayors and federal lawmakers, in Peoria before Thanksgiving.

"The purpose of this comprehensive, cross-section of citizens, both political and private sector, is to put together a game plan and a strategy to maintain what we have," LaHood said.

The federal government spent $50 million to build the Air Guard facility at the Greater Peoria Airport just 10 years ago, LaHood said. The Springfield Air Guard unit has received millions in recent years to maintain its facilities at Capital Airport.

The bases are important to the area's economy, but that isn't enough to win an argument with the Pentagon, LaHood acknowledges.

"Everybody makes a case for economic development," LaHood said. "The BRAC commission is looking at what - over the next couple of decades - is the military going to use? What are they going to need? I think it's incumbent on us to make the case from a military point of view."

By law, Congress has said criteria for choosing which bases to close should include the military value, the economic impact and the savings that can be achieved, said Department of Defense spokesman Glenn Flood.

The criteria for selecting which facilities to close will be released in February. The services then will start drafting their recommendations.

The president is to appoint nine members to the new base-closing commission March 15, 2005. The defense secretary must send a proposed list of closings to the commission by May 16, 2005. The commission makes its final recommendations to the president by Sept. 8, 2005.

While many communities are trying to protect themselves from possible closures in this next round, "that doesn't mean it will protect them," Flood said. "There are no guarantees."