States to Dispute Air Guard Changes

States fearing the loss of Air National Guard (search) units argue that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld can't move them without each governor's consent. The Pentagon claims it has the authority to reshuffle the Air Guard as it sees fit.

Both sides were getting one last chance to argue their cases Thursday before the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission (search) reviewing the Pentagon's sweeping plan to close, shrink or expand hundreds of military bases and other installations nationwide.

Later this month, the nine-member commission will decide which parts of the Pentagon's plan to change before sending its final report to President Bush and Congress.

The shake-up of dozens of Air Guard units has emerged as the most contentious part of the plan. Two states, Pennsylvania and Illinois, have sued over the Air Guard proposal, and the commissioners have serious concerns about it.

"It is incumbent upon this commission to ensure that the Department of Defense's closure and realignment recommendations, especially those pertaining to the Air National Guard, do not undermine the unique mission responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security (search)," Anthony Principi, the commission chairman, said in a letter inviting federal and state officials to Thursday's hearing.

Rumsfeld's Air Guard plan calls for shifting people, equipment and aircraft around at least 54 sites where Air Guard units are stationed. Roughly two dozen sites would expand, while about 30 are slated for closure or downsizing. In many cases, units would continue to exist but no planes would be assigned to them.

The Pentagon says the Air Guard changes are part of an overall effort to reshape the Air Force -- which will have a smaller but smarter aircraft fleet in the future -- into a more effective and efficient force by putting active duty, Air Reserve and Air Guard units to work alongside one another.

Brig. Gen. Allison Hickey, who is directing the overall Air Force reorganization, said Air Guard units without planes would be assigned to missions as they develop.

From the comfort of their home bases, for example, such units would provide support services for troops in combat zones or electronically direct unmanned aerial vehicles that are flying thousands of miles away in the battlefield.

Those Air Guard units with planes would fly the Air Force's newest planes alongside active duty and Reserve units, Hickey said. Currently, Air Guard units are given the active duty's hand-me-down aircraft.

Lawmakers, states and commissioners worry about the Pentagon proposal's potential impact on recruitment, retention and training, and question whether the Air Guard will be able to fulfill its homeland security mission.

The commission's legal counsel has said relocating, disbanding or moving Air Guard units from one state to another could be outside the commission's authority. The Pentagon has asked the commission to wait for a Justice Department opinion before changing Rumsfeld's plan.