Defense Secretary Leon Panetta went to Western New York Thursday to save the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station from closing and also to save the local Congressional seat for a Democrat.
“We are committed to maintaining this base for the future,” Panetta told about 200 Guard and Reserve members gathered in the base hangar. “We are counting on this base. It’s important geographically, it’s important to our mission going forward.”
“Mission accomplished,” said Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.), who won the heavily-Republican 26th Congressional District seat in a special election upset last year and has been targeted for defeat by the GOP national leadership.
Hochul, who pleaded for months to get a visit from Panetta, said “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to tour the airbase with him personally.”
Rather than close the base — the largest employer in economically-distressed Niagara County — Panetta said that the Defense Department planned to upgrade eight of the 12 C130-H transport aircraft based there and spend $6.1 million on a new flight simulator.
Congress ripped the Panetta and the Air Force’s proposal to slash manpower and aircraft in the Air National Guard. Panetta tried to reassure the many Guardsmen in the audience that they still had his support.
“Our goal is to work with Niagara Falls and the community to do everything possible to try and support this base,” Panetta told members of the 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve and the 107th Airlift Wing of the New York State Air National Guard.
“You have kept strong retention and recruiting numbers high, and that’s important,” Panetta said. “I am also committed to exploring new missions for this base in the future.”
Panetta’s trip to the region countered recent fund-raising visits to the area by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to plug for former Erie County Executive Chris Collins, Hochul’s GOP opponent, and for Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks in her race to unseat Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.).
Panetta is an old friend of the 82-year-old Slaughter from his own days in the House. Also on hand to greet Panetta was Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. For 11 years, Panetta and Schumer were roommates in a Capitol Hill apartment.
The fate of the Niagara base has figured prominently in the campaigns of Hochul and Slaughter, and has also become symbolic of similar struggles across the nation to save Guard and Reserve bases that are seen as vital to their communities.
The Niagara base, which has 2,000 personnel and contributes about 3,500 full and part-time jobs to the local economy, was threatened with closure in 2005 by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), but heavy lobbying by then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) kept it open.
Before Panetta’s arrival, Maj. Andrea Pitruzzella, a spokesman for the 914th Airlift Wing, said “we have no indications of any base closings.”
Panetta had already told an audience of business leaders in Monterrey, Calif., on Monday that he was giving up on his own plan to have a new round of BRAC closings in 2013, but he was open to a BRAC round in 2015.
“Now is not the time for a BRAC round, particularly when our economy is struggling to recover, but the reality is that the department is going to need to take a hard look at what we do in terms of support infrastructure as we seek to reduce overhead costs,” Panetta said.
The wild card in Panetta’s planning was the threat of sequestration at the end of the year that would add as much as another $600 billion to the $487 billion in defense cuts already underway over the next 10 years.
Hochul was already preparing her future arguments to keep the Niagara base open, stressing its “strategic” importance.
“As the sole military installation in the area, the Air Reserve Station plays a vital role in protecting the security of our nation, our region, and our local community,” Hochul said in a statement that echoed the arguments of House and Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle with Guard and Reserve bases in their districts and states.
Other lawmakers have been making the case for their bases at nearly every House and Senate hearing they attend. Dan Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington institute, described it as “the biggest military food fight in a generation.”
Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., locked in a tough re-election bid against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who serves as a colonel in the Army National Guard, never misses an opportunity to rip the Air Force over base closings. Brown said the Air Force “should reconsider these proposals.”
Last week, the battle of the bases led to a political embarassment for President Obama on a visit to Ohio, which is crucial to his re-election drive.
Air Force One landed on Aug. 1 at the Mansfield Lahm Air National Guard base, which also is under threat of closing. As a message to Obama, four C-27J transport planes from the 179th Airlift Wing were parked near Air Force One. Defense budget plans call for the elimination of the C-27J.
The White House put out a statement saying Air Force leaders have “developed a strategy for military restructuring that will impact the C-27J fleet, whose missions can also be fulfilled by the larger C-130 aircraft,” the statement said.
“That said, the president is committed to working with the Department of Defense to find a mission for Mansfield Lahm Air National Guard Base, so that the men and women who serve there can continue to make their important contribution to our national security.”