Base closings hint at new air strategy

A third of Air Guard flying units would lose all planes, but the US could gain in global reach.

When his Cabinet tried to get Calvin Coolidge to up the budget for military aviation back in the days of open cockpits and silk scarves, the president is said to have quipped, "Can't we just buy one airplane and have the pilots take turns?"

It is a joke many in today's Air National Guard would not find funny. Under the Pentagon's plan, which its base-closing commission will vote on this week, 30 Air-Guard sites from Cape Cod in Massachusetts to Houston to Portland, Ore., would be closed or downsized; 29 of 88 flying units would end up with no aircraft.

But beyond the political turf squabble, Air National Guard issues now being considered by the nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) also involve the future of the Air Force, including the ability - and possibly the intention - of the United States to project and use its military power worldwide.

This round of base changes "represents the last opportunity we will have for a generation to reset our forces," Gen. John Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, told commissioners over the weekend.

While they may be busy fighting wars on several fronts today, Air Force planners are looking ahead 30 years at what they call "Future Total Force," including Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard forces.

"The Future Total Force will allow us to provide combat capabilities in a way that only a global power can provide them: striking with little notice, anywhere in the world, with precision; moving our armed forces and their equipment to any location, at any time, to support our national objectives," Michael Dominguez, assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs, said at a recent seminar in Washington. "As the single global power, we can't be content with dominating local commons - the planet is our commons. And, for good or ill, the world looks to us to enforce the rules, maintain the security, and sustain the stability of the global commons."

With different equipment and extended missions at a time when the United States is likely to remain the world's only superpower for decades, the Air National Guard will probably see its structure, location, and mission change as a result. In some ways, it already has seen the change.

Air National Guard crews in New York, Texas, North Dakota, and Arizona can fly pilotless spy and attack missions over Iraq from their home stations, Secretary Dominguez notes. In future years, such drones could take over some important aerial refueling and transport duties as well.

More computer work

Similarly, Air Guard personnel are slated to be part of what the Pentagon calls "C4ISR" (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) - which is likely to mean more work at computer terminals and less flying.

In the military of the future, however, this could give Air Guard units more power and responsibility than they currently have.

"Air Force leaders want to use the base- closure process as a way of reorganizing the reserves, especially the Air National Guard, so that it is better postured to support the regular Air Force in overseas missions," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "They feel they must take steps to make the Air National Guard more efficient and relevant to national needs, because budgets are not growing but missions' needs are."

The Pentagon sees all this in terms of force projection necessary as long as the US bears responsibility for keeping an eye on the "global commons." But elected officials view the sought-for changes in terms of lost jobs and more.

Under the Pentagon's plan, five states - Connecticut, Delaware, Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota - would lose all their aircraft. Regional air defenses against terrorist and other attacks are at stake, as well as the ability of governors to use Air Guard units to fight forest fires and deal with other emergencies. Constitutional questions have been raised as well, involving the role and authority of governors, which has led several states (including Pennsylvania, Indiana, Washington, and Oregon) to threaten lawsuits against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Will homeland be safe?

But mainly governors and members of Congress in affected states voice their concern in terms of defending against another terrorist attack on the US.

"This boils down to regional homeland security," says US Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington. Senator Cantwell notes that if the 15 F-15 fighters and eight KC-135 fuel tankers leave the 142nd Air National Guard fighter wing in Portland for other facilities in Louisiana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Kansas, "the nearest fighter jets available [to the Pacific Northwest] in an emergency may be as far away as Fresno, Calif."

Meanwhile, other critics see the proposed changes in Air Guard forces as a part of another worrisome trend.

"Rumsfeld is trying to create more of a force that can intervene in third-world hot spots," says national security analyst Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. "Creating a force that makes it more flexible and easier to intervene overseas means the politicians will be tempted to use it more, thus creating more blowback attacks on the US homeland."

"Unfortunately," he adds, "these changes [in the Air National Guard] will reduce our ability to deal with such attacks."

All this has made the debate over the future of the Air Guard the most contentious part of the base-closing and realignment process.

BRAC commissioners this week vote on whether to accept, reject, or modify the Pentagon's recommendations. Their final version will go to President Bush by Sept. 8. Mr. Bush may either accept or reject that version without further modification. If he accepts it, it then goes to Congress, which also has as its only choices a yea or nay vote on the full plan.

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