- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

The base-closing commission crafted its own shake-up of the Air National Guard yesterday after it voted to keep open Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota — a setback for the Pentagon.

The nine-member panel endorsed the concept of restructuring the Air Guard but did not accept Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s proposal. Instead, commissioners shuffled personnel and aircraft as they saw fit. They said they thought their Air Guard plan ensured that homeland security was not compromised.

“In parts, we concur with their recommendations. In other areas, we’re making some changes,” commission Chairman Anthony J. Principi said.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s plan had called for nearly 30 Air Guard units scattered across many states to lose their aircraft and flying missions, prompting protests from governors and a few lawsuits.

Instead, the panel restored planes to some units, and in doing so, kept open some Air Guard and Reserve bases that would have closed under the Pentagon plan.

“We have established more flying units then the secretary recommended but we still could not get a flying unit in every state,” Commissioner Harold Gehman said.

The panel worked well into the evening yesterday as members made the high-stakes decisions in the first round of U.S. military base closings and consolidations in a decade. Votes by the commission over the past three days have brought sighs of relief and exasperation from communities across America. The commission adjourned until today, when it plans to make closing statements.

By Sept. 8, the panel must send its final report to President Bush, who can accept it, reject it or send it back for revisions. Congress also will have a chance to veto the plan in its entirety, but it has not taken that step in four previous rounds of base closings. If ultimately approved, the changes would occur over the next six years.

Air Force officials said their overall plan — affecting active duty, Air Guard and Air Reserve bases — was designed to make the service more effective by consolidating weapons systems and personnel as it moves to a smaller but smarter fleet in the future.

In May, the Pentagon proposed closing or consolidating a record 62 major military bases and 775 smaller installations to save $48.8 billion over 20 years. The Air Guard proposal emerged quickly as the most contentious issue.

The decision to spare Ellsworth Air Force Base was a blessing to South Dakotans, who feared losing about 4,000 jobs, and a victory for Sen. John Thune and the state’s other politicians, who lobbied vigorously against closure. Mr. Thune, a freshman Republican, unseated then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle partly on the strength of his assertion that he would be better positioned to help save the base.

“This fight was not about me,” Mr. Thune said after the vote. “This whole decision was about the merits. It had nothing to do with the politics.”

Famous for its Cold War-era arsenal of missiles and nuclear bombers aimed toward the Soviet Union, Ellsworth is home to half the nation’s fleet of B-1B bombers. The Pentagon had wanted to move all the bombers to their other location, Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.

The commission found that closing Ellsworth wouldn’t save any money over 20 years and actually would cost nearly $20 million to move the planes. The Pentagon had projected saving $1.8 billion over two decades.

The panel worried that putting all the B-1B bombers at one base would hurt force readiness. Commissioners noted that Ellsworth, located on prairie, had plenty of “unfettered airspace.”

Rejecting another Pentagon proposal, the panel decided to keep open Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. However, the base would lose all of its aircraft and face the possibility of closure in 2010. By that date, the panel said the Pentagon must find other missions for the facility or Cannon will shut down.

The vote was a compromise among commissioners who struggled to balance national security interests with fear that closing the base entirely would devastate the economy around tiny Clovis, N.M. Some commissioners said the fate of Cannon was the most difficult decision to make so far.

Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, portrayed the outcome as a “partial victory.”

The panel found that closing the base, home to four F-16 fighter squadrons, would put at least a 20 percent dent in the local economy, costing almost 5,000 jobs on the base and in the community near the New Mexico-Texas line.

Several commissioners said those stark numbers persuaded them to keep the base open. Others advocated closure, saying that the Air Force must be able to reshape itself to face future threats.

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