WASHINGTON—The military base-closing commission on Friday struck down the Pentagon's recommendations to close Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, dealing a blow to the Pentagon's plan to cut costs and reposition U.S. military forces for the 21st century, but saving thousands of local jobs in the two western states.
The Base Realignment and Closure Commission's decisions came on a final day of votes on a process that will close or restructure dozens of major military installations and hundreds of smaller ones over the next few years. This round of base closings is the first in a decade.
The votes on Ellsworth and Cannon were two of the most difficult decisions facing the nine-member panel as they weighed the military value of each installation against other considerations, including the economic impact on local communities, many of which depend on military bases for their economic lifeblood.
But commission Chairman Anthony J. Principi said, "Painful basing decisions should not be deferred because they are difficult."
The commission began deliberations on closing or restructuring dozens of Air National Guard and Air Reserve bases just as a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that the commission didn't have the authority to deactivate the 111th Fighter Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard without the approval of that state's governor.
The commissioners had voted to take away fighter jets from Naval Air Station Willow Grove, where the unit is based, but they left the base open.
Commissioner James Bilbray, a former Nevada congressman, said the judge's ruling wouldn't reverse the panel's decision.
The commission also voted Friday to keep some KC-135 tankers from the 319th Air Refueling Wing at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.
By refusing to vote to close Ellsworth and Cannon, the commission demonstrated its willingness to take independent action and not rubber-stamp the Pentagon's list of recommendations. The commission has rejected several Pentagon recommendations, including keeping a Navy shipyard and submarine base open in New England, both of which the Pentagon wanted to close.
The Pentagon sought to close Ellsworth and move its 24 B-1 bombers from the 28th Bomb Wing to Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. The Pentagon contended that the move would save $1.9 billion over 20 years, mostly in manpower reductions.
But the commission's analysts found that the move would cost $20 million more than it would to leave the bombers at Ellsworth. Some commissioners also expressed concern that the move could potentially harm national security by consolidating all of the Air Force's 67 B-1s in one place.
"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," said commissioner Harold Gehman, a retired Navy admiral.
The commission's decision was a victory for South Dakota political leaders, who had lobbied hard to keep Ellsworth open. They had argued that closing the base would cost more than 4,000 jobs, about 10 percent of the local area's total.
"This is a great day for South Dakota, but we think it's a great day for America," said Republican Sen. John Thune, who unseated former Senate Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle last year partly on promises to save Ellsworth.
The Pentagon wanted to close Cannon and move all of its F-16 fighter jets to other installations around the country, including to Air National Guard bases that needed the jets to keep their units flying or face closure.
The commission accepted the Pentagon's recommendation to move jets from its 27th Fighter Wing to Air National Guard bases in Wisconsin and South Dakota, plus active-duty installations at Kirtland in New Mexico, Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
But commissioners reversed the Pentagon's decision to close Cannon altogether. Instead, they voted to keep the base open as an "enclave" but without aircraft. If the secretary of defense doesn't find a new mission for Cannon by 2010, then the base must close, the commission decided.
The panel voted down a proposal by commissioner Lloyd "Fig" Newton, a retired Air Force general, which would have replaced Cannon's F-16s with pilot and navigator training from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.
Newton said he'd received more calls from retired Air Force officers who urged him to keep Cannon open than he had about any other military installation. The base is in isolated eastern New Mexico, which offers virtually unfettered air space.
"I assure you, Mr. Chairman, that once we lose air space, it's going to be very, very difficult to get that air space back," Newton said. "Cannon Air Force Base is also absolutely out in the middle of nowhere ... if you're a flier like I am, that's exactly what you're looking for."
By keeping Cannon open, at least temporarily, the commissioners sought to craft a compromise that met the strategic needs of the Air Force and the economic needs of nearby Clovis, N.M., which depends almost entirely on Cannon for its survival.
The commission spent much of Friday in an elaborate effort to shuffle hundreds of fighter jets, refueling tankers and cargo planes around dozens of Air Force, Reserve and National Guard bases around the country. The goal was to ensure that every state retains an Air National Guard unit, aircraft and flying mission, according to committee staff.
Commissioner James Hill, a retired Army general, said the panel was sensitive to the concerns of communities that were losing National Guard aircraft, "but we simply can't have airplanes in every locale."
President Bush must either accept or reject the commission's list of closures within 15 days of receiving it. The president can send the list back once for revisions. Once the president accepts the list, Congress has 45 days to accept it or reject it, but it can't make any changes.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BASECLOSINGS
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050826 BASECLOSINGS
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