WASHINGTON – In a victory for residents and workers in South Dakotan and New Mexico, a federal commission has voted to keep open the Ellsworth and Cannon Air Force bases, rejecting a Pentagon plan to close them and other military bases throughout the country.
In a vote of eight to one, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission decided to not go ahead with the Pentagon's recommendation to move Ellsworth Air Force Base (search) — South Dakota's second-largest employer — and its 24 B-1 bombers to Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas. Ellsworth is home to half of the nation's B-1 bombers and employs about 4,000 people.
But the commission found that closing Ellsworth wouldn't save any money over 20 years, and that it actually would cost nearly $20 million to move the planes to the Texas base. The Pentagon had projected saving $1.8 billion over two decades with the closure.
"We have no savings, we're essentially moving the airplanes from one very, very good base to another very, very good base, which are essentially equal," commissioner Harold Gehman said about the proposal.
Sen. John Thune (search), the freshman Republican who unseated then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle partly on the strength of his claim he could help save the base, has spent the past few months working almost exclusively on saving the base, and, perhaps, his political future.
He applauded the commission for not just putting a rubber stamp on the Pentagon's proposal and said he and other Ellsworth supporters presented compelling arguments on the merits of keeping Ellsworth open that were based more on just its economic value to the state. They stressed the importance of the base not only in the current War on Terror but on combating emerging threats, as well.
"We were successful, I think, in getting those arguments in front of the commission and ultimately, they found what we believed to be true all along — that Ellsworth is not only important to South Dakota but important to the nation as well," Thune told FOX News after the vote.
The Pentagon proposed in May closing or consolidating a record 62 major military bases and 775 smaller installations to save $48.8 billion over 20 years, make the services more efficient and reposition the armed forces.
The panel must send its final report to President Bush by Sept. 8. The president 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.
New Mexico Wins 'Partial Victory'
The panel also recommended that Cannon Air Force Base (search) in New Mexico stay open but that its operations be greatly reduced. The base, the economic lifeblood of tiny Clovis, N.M., would stay open — at least until Dec. 31, 2009 — but the base would lose all of its aircraft.
Gov. Bill Richardson (search), D-N.M., who was at the hearing, welcomed the chance at a compromise, saying keeping the base opened in a diminished capacity would be a "partial victory."
The panel found that closing Cannon, home to four F-16 fighter squadrons, would put a 20 percent dent in the local economy, costing the community almost 3,000 jobs on the base and as many as 2,000 more related jobs in the community near the New Mexico-Texas line.
Several commissioners said those stark numbers had convinced them to vote to keep the base open. But others advocated closure. Chairman Anthony Principi (search) called closing the base "very painful but also necessary" as the Air Force seeks to restructure itself to face future threats.
Within minutes of opening its Friday session, the nine-member panel also signed off on proposals to shift forces around Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
In related news, a federal judge ruled Friday that the Pentagon lacks the authority to close a Pennsylvania Air National Guard unit without the governor's approval. The part of the Defense Department report "that recommends deactivation of the 111th Fighter Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard is null and void," the judge ruled.
Other Bases Affected
The BRAC blocked a plan that would have removed all but two F-15 fighter jets from the Oregon Air National Guard base at Portland International Airport and moved them to Air Force bases in New Jersey and Louisiana. Eight KC-135 tankers flown by the Air Force Reserve 939th Air Refueling Wing would have been moved to Oklahoma and Kansas.
The Pentagon wanted two jets from an undetermined base to be sent to Portland to be on alert status, but the nearest fighter base would be 750 miles away. The proposal drew intense opposition from Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski -- who had threatened to sue to prevent the loss -- and from members of Congress from Oregon and Washington.
Commissioners also agreed with the Pentagon's plan to move nine of the 17 A-10 Thunderbolts at the Air National Guard base at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut to Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield, Mass. The rest of the Bradley planes would be retired.
And in Montana, the panel approved a plan that would replace the Guard's fleet of 16 F-16 fighters, with the same number of F-15s. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the outcome is the result of intense lobbying that outlined the many important roles the Air Guard unit in Montana fills in the nation's security.
Baucus, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns and MANG officials pitched Great Falls as a new home to an F-15 flying mission.
In Arkansas, F-16 fighters from the Air Base at Fort Smith would be removed but an A-10 would be added. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said the change will result in little, if any, loss of personnel.
The commission has largely endorsed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's effort to streamline support services across the Army, Navy and Air Force by merging similar programs scattered around small military facilities. However, the panel also bucked the Pentagon on a couple of large Navy base closures in New England that Rumsfeld wanted.
Across the country, communities anxiously awaited word on whether their Air Force bases would be scrapped or spared, as politicians who represent them flew to Washington to be present for the high-stakes votes.
"We're all on pins and needles, that's for sure," said Bill Okrepkie, a local council member in Rapid City, S.D.
On Thursday, the commission plowed through dozens of recommendations to consolidate education, medical, administrative and training programs and small facilities spread across the Army, Navy and Air Force. It decidedg to shutter the Onizuka Air Force Station in California and the Galena Airport Forward Operation Location in Alaska, which the Air Force uses for training and to land fighter jets when necessary.
Also in Alaska, the commission chose to keep Eielson Air Force Base operational, rejecting a Pentagon plan to sharply scale back personnel and aircraft there.
"The commission clearly saw our argument that its airspace and training facilities are too valuable and it is impractical to 'warm base' such a cold place," Gov. Frank Murkowski said.
Air Force officials say their proposal as a whole is designed to make the service more effective by consolidating both weapons systems and personnel as the force moves to a smaller but smarter aircraft fleet.
The Air National Guard plan would shift people, equipment and aircraft around at 54 or more sites where Guard units are stationed. Major Air Guard and Reserve facilities in Alaska, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would close. In some states, aircraft would be taken away from 25 Air Guard units. Those units would get other assignments such as expeditionary combat support roles. They also would retain their missions of aiding governors during statewide emergencies.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.