States, feds clash over Guard

Governors sue over closure and transfer plans that would affect one-third of Air National Guard units.

When the Pentagon released its list of bases to be realigned this year, it contained a message - unwritten but obvious - to Gov. Kenny Guinn: Nevada doesn't need the eight planes of its National Guard anymore. According to the plan, the C-130 transports now sitting on the tarmac in Reno should be sent to Arkansas, leaving the Nevada Air National Guard with no airplanes.

As commander in chief of the Nevada militia, however, Governor Guinn sees things a little differently. To him, the C-130s are a lifeline to the far-flung towns of the Nevada desert in times of flooding and fire. And when Las Vegas was tabbed as a New Year's Eve terror target, they were a central element of emergency planning.

Yet now, the Pentagon's desire to consolidate more aircraft at fewer locations points to a historic reorganization of the Air National Guard. Like Nevada, several other states face the prospect of losing all their National Guard planes, and some governors have gone so far as to sue the Pentagon - insisting that National Guard aircraft have a unique state function.

The Pentagon's aims are not without merit, many analysts say, and it owns the aircraft. Yet as the base-closing process grinds toward its late-summer deadline, National Guard officials - as well as committee members themselves - are raising questions about the plan, concerned that the scope of the changes could undermine the Air National Guard and homeland security.

The course of the Iraq war has helped shape "a well-articulated public debate" about the needs of the Army National Guard, says John Pike of "But there has not been a similar discussion about the Air National Guard until now. This is the first time it has come into play."

Ever since the Pentagon released its list in May, such a discussion has seemed inevitable. Of all the branches of the United States military, the Air National Guard is by many measures the most affected by the recommendations. Thirty units are slated to lose all their aircraft - some one-third of the entire Air Guard.

To the Air Force itself, this is an unavoidable consequence of the changing nature of modern warfare. Today, the war on terror calls more for satellite photos and pilotless drones than for supersonic jets bristling with missiles. This means consolidating both the Air Force and Air Guard at fewer bases - both to save money and to bring the Guard more in line with the Air Force's new mission.

"We have had too many bases," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution here. "We need to be more efficient."

Yet there is growing concern about whether the Air Force has gone about it in the right way. One member of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission suggested, only half-jokingly, that it might be easier simply to throw out the Pentagon's suggestions and start afresh.

For one, the Air Force wants to take away planes from 30 units, but it is closing only five bases. The question is: What will the people in the other bases do? The Air Force has called these units "enclaves" and promises them new missions. But the allure of the Air National Guard has always been flying, and without planes, recruiting and retention could suffer.

"The Air Force is going to lose some of its most experienced people," says Stephen Koper, president of the National Guard Association here.

More broadly, critics worry that the changes could tear holes in the nation's security net. If the 104th Fighter Wing moves from Cape Cod to New Jersey and Florida as planned, for example, Boston could be vulnerable to a Sept. 11-style attack. "I am concerned that ... locating two fighters in a neighboring state is impractical and would not provide ample cover for this region," said Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in testimony to the BRAC commission earlier this month.

At the heart of the governors' concerns is the fundamental question of states' rights. Though the Guard is a federal force under the Constitution, the Founding Fathers passed much of its authority to the states, leading to the Guard's unique federal-state role.

As commanders in chief of their state National Guards, governors believe that federal law guarantees them a role in this base-closure process and that the Pentagon's proposal impairs their ability to act in times of crisis.

"Our problem with it is the loss of one-quarter of [Pennsylvania's] Air National Guard component with no consultation beforehand," says Adrian King, deputy chief of staff for Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, who is among the governors suing the Pentagon.

Indeed, beneath many of the complaints is exasperation that the states were all but ignored. While the Army reached out to Adjutants General - the top National Guard officers in each state - for its realignment plan, "unfortunately the Air Force side was a little more exclusive," says Roger Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association.

The BRAC commission has until September to consider the Pentagon's plan before forwarding the final draft to the president and Congress. Though the governors' lawsuits could delay the entire process, recent weeks have suggested that the commission is already dealing with the governors' concerns. Says Mr. O'Hanlon of Brookings: "The process is working."

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