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States Fight Closings of Air National Guard Bases

By Ann Scott Tyson and Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

National Guard officials yesterday tentatively welcomed a decision by an independent base-closure commission to scale back the Pentagon's plan to consolidate Air National Guard bases around the country but said serious problems remain that are likely to lead more states to file lawsuits disputing the plan.

Connecticut yesterday joined three other states -- Pennsylvania, Illinois and Tennessee -- in challenging the Pentagon's authority to shutter Air National Guard bases or strip them of aircraft. Connecticut filed a lawsuit that is also directed against the commission, seeking a court order to block it from sending its base recommendation to the president.

"They got it wrong, and we're going to fight it," Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) said yesterday after the commission voted Friday to uphold the Pentagon's proposal to remove all 17 of the A-10 attack aircraft from the 103rd Fighter Wing at Bradley Air National Guard Base. Rell said the decision would mean "effectively closing" the base and would leave Connecticut as the only state with no Air National Guard flying mission.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is also considering legal action over the plan to remove all F-15s from Otis Air Force Base, his spokeswoman said by e-mail yesterday. "The governor is currently reviewing all options including legal options . . . to keep Otis open," said spokeswoman Julie Teer.

The Pentagon proposal to empty dozens of Air National Guard bases of fighter jets, refueling tankers, air cargo planes and attack aircraft has been one of the most controversial aspects of the military base closures proposed in May. The overall plan called for shutting or realigning more than 800 military installations nationwide to save an estimated $50 billion over 20 years. The commission's recommended changes to the plan, which reduced the estimated savings to $37 billion, will go to the president for a decision by Sept. 8.

On Friday, the nine-member Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted to curb an aggressive Air Force proposal to consolidate aircraft after National Guard officials argued it would create dangerous gaps in homeland defense and emergency response capabilities, while severely undercutting local air guard recruiting. The plan had shocked National Guard officials, many of whom expressed bitterness over the lack of consultation by the Air Force leadership.

"The Air Force piece of this was flawed from the very beginning," said Maj. Gen. Frank D. Vavala, adjutant general of the Delaware National Guard, echoing the sentiment of several top state guard officials. "They were afraid we might say no to some things, so they did not include us. That's why they screwed up so bad."

Guard leaders were encouraged by the commission's decision to overrule the Pentagon in many cases to keep smaller squadrons of aircraft than the Air Force had sought, and to distribute them more widely among the states.

"In general, we are pleased. The size of the units . . . was pretty much changed to reflect our desires," said Maj. Gen. Roger P. Lempke, president of the Adjutant Generals Association of the United States.

"We are absolutely elated" over the commission decision to keep C-130H transport aircraft at New Castle, Del., Vavala said, arguing the removal of the planes would have had "a devastating impact" on air support for the nation's capital and seriously harmed his ability to recruit. Without such a decision, Delaware would have sued, he said.

For their part, senior Air Force officers yesterday appeared largely satisfied with the outcome of the commission's decisions, not just on reshuffling the Air National Guard's aircraft but on the fate of active-duty bases as well.

"We got about 70 percent of what we asked for," Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters yesterday. "That's still a considerable amount of change, when you look at it from that point of view."

The Air Force failed to win commission approval to close two large bases -- Ellsworth in South Dakota and Cannon in New Mexico. But while keeping these facilities open will reduce the amount of savings that the service had hoped to achieve by $2 billion or more, the operational impact on the Air Force is unlikely to be very significant, several officers said.

The Air Force had argued that larger squadrons at fewer bases were necessary because the number of military planes will dwindle as newer, more capable F/A-22 and F-35 fighter jets replace F-15s, F-16s and A-10s.

The original plan had called for removing all aircraft from nearly three dozen of the Air National Guard's 89 bases. Instead, the commission decided to keep aircraft at 10 of the bases that the Air Force had wanted stripped.

To provide for the additional bases, the commission created somewhat smaller squadrons generally than the Air Force had sought. In the case of F-15s, for instance, there will be 18 jets per squadron instead of 24. Still, Air Force officers said yesterday, the new squadrons will in many cases be larger than existing ones and so should prove more efficient. Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, director of the National Guard Bureau who has tried to mediate the conflict between state Guard leaders and the regular Air Force, played down the likelihood of a lasting rift.

"What's at stake is much too important for the nation to allow for any parochial rifts," he said in an interview yesterday. "It would be highly unprofessional and dangerous to allow that to occur."

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