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The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review July 16, 2005

Legal opinion may help the Moon air base

By Brian Bowling

A legal interpretation supporting Pennsylvania's contention that the Pentagon can't unilaterally disband one of the state's National Guard units could help a Moon air base.

The memo alone doesn't improve the chances for saving the Air Force Reserve's 911th Airlift Wing, but the base could end up with new tenants, said Keith Dorman, spokesman for the Pit-BRAC task force.

"It potentially presents an opportunity for Pittsburgh International Airport being a home for state guard units that need a base," he said Friday.

A national security analyst went further, saying the memo could help the 911th stay open.

The memo leaked to The Associated Press says the Base Realignment and Closure Commission's authority extends only to bases, not to guard units housed there. Written by the commission's lawyer, the document implies the commission could approve the Pentagon's recommendation to close Willow Grove Naval Air Station near Philadelphia without endorsing the dissolution of the Air National Guard's 111th Fighter Wing, which is stationed on the base.

"I think the BRAC commission is saying they're not in the business of deactivating Air National Guard units," Dorman said.

Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday claiming that the Pentagon exceeded its authority when it included the disbanding of the 111th in its base realignment plan.

The Defense Department wants to move the unit's A-10 Thunderbolt II's and other assets to National Guard units in Idaho, Maryland and Michigan. Another part of the proposal would close the Moon air base and send the 911th's C-130H Hercules cargo planes and other assets to bases in Nebraska, North Carolina and Ohio.

Neither the memo nor the lawsuit suggests that closing the 911th would exceed the Pentagon's authority, but Pit-BRAC and the state's congressional delegation have argued that the Air Force bungled the analysis that concluded the base should be shut down. One commissioner has agreed the analysis understated the facility's military value. If four others come to the same conclusion, the panel could vote in mid-August to remove the Moon air base from the closing list.

The memo and the lawsuit could lead to Pennsylvania being able to keep the 111th, but having to find it a new home.

The proposed closing of the 911th and Willow Grove are part of a national plan to close or reduce operations at 837 bases so the Pentagon can trim its operating costs by an estimated $5.5 billion annually. The proposal would take planes away from 23 Air Guard units nationally.

John Pike, a national defense analyst who operates GlobalSecurity.org, said that blocking the Air Guard moves could save many reserve bases such as the 911th.

The Air Force plan includes many linked moves of planes and positions -- for example, the 911th and a Charleston, W.Va., squadron would be moved to Pope Air Force Base near Fayetteville, N.C., while all of Pope's planes would be decommissioned or moved to other bases.

"The question is, can you undo some of (the moves) without undoing most of them?" Pike said.


Copyright 2005, The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.