August 26, 2005

Panel deals Pentagon base-closing setbacks

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An independent panel reviewing
closings of U.S. military bases on Friday rejected the proposed
shutdown of a politically sensitive air base and reversing some
cutbacks for Air National Guard units.

Completing its review, the Defense Realignment and Closure
Commission dealt a blow to the Pentagon by voting to keep open
South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force Base, sparing the state's
new Republican senator a political defeat.

But the panel approved closure of the Willow Grove Naval
Air Station Joint Reserve Base near Philadelphia despite a
federal judge's decision to prohibit deactivation of the base's
main unit, the Pennsylvania National Guard 111th Fighter Wing.

U.S. District Judge John Padova in Philadelphia said the
Defense Department lacked authority to close a National Guard
unit without the consent of the state's governor, Ed Rendell.

The ruling offered a glimmer of hope for other states
making similar challenges to the removal of aircraft from Air
National Guard units, including Illinois and Tennessee.

The review panel merely struck language dissolving the unit
and voted to shut the base and move its A-10 attack aircraft to
other locations. The 111th will remain at its full strength of
nearly 1,200.

Both decisions reflected intense political wrangling over
the Pentagon's plan to save tens of billions of dollars over
the next two decades and reshape forces to face new threats.

The commission plowed through a raft of Air National Guard
cutbacks -- among its thorniest issues because many units are
losing aircraft, including some that have served in Iraq.

It voted to close the Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape
Cod, Massachusetts, at a cost of 505 jobs, and stripped F-15
fighter jets from the Missouri Air National Guard's 131st
Fighter Wing in St. Louis.

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt called the move "incomprehensible"
and said he would sue the commission and Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld for violating the base closings law.

Commissioner Lloyd "Fig" Newton, a retired Air Force
general, said some states had to lose bases because the
nation's aging warplane fleet was shrinking.

The panel spared some Air National Guard operations,
allowing the Portland Air Guard Station in Oregon to keep its
F-15s and reversing plans to remove C-130s from the Niagara
Falls Air Reserve Station in western New York state.


The day's biggest reversal was the decision to preserve the
Ellsworth base for the Cold War-era B-1 bomber was a victory
for Sen. John Thune, a Republican who beat former Senate
Minority Leader Tom Daschle last November by claiming that he
would be better placed to save the facility.

The base is the second-largest employer in the largely
rural state of 750,000 residents.

"This is a great day for South Dakota, but we think it's a
great day for America," said Thune, adding that he spent more
time lobbying base commissioners in the last three months than
he had with his family.

The effort paid off as the nine-member panel found no
meaningful cost savings in the Air Force's plan to move
Ellsworth's B-1s to Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.

New Mexico's Cannon Air Force Base did not fare as well,
losing its F-16 fighter jets and most of its 2,824 jobs to
other bases and Air National Guard units. However, the panel
voted to keep the base available for a possible future mission
until at least the end of 2009.

Other major base closures reversed by the commission
included the New London Submarine Base in Groton, Connecticut,
and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.

The commission must submit its changes to President George
W. Bush by September 8. He and Congress can accept or reject it
in its entirety but can make no changes.