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The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review May 11, 2005

Region readies base defense

By Brian Bowling and Brad Bumsted

If terrorists again attack the East Coast, a regional military base near Pittsburgh International Airport could serve as the staging area for troops, emergency responders and supplies.
That's the pitch local officials could make if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld this week recommends closing any of Pittsburgh's three major bases, John Brosky, co-chairman of the Military Affairs Council of Western Pennsylvania, said Tuesday.

Pittsburgh isn't considered a likely target, but is close enough to high-risk areas along the Eastern seaboard to be an ideal command point if terrorists strike, Brosky said, citing a study by the Dupuy Institute of Annandale, Va.

"We think we're back far enough to be a good backup for homeland defense," Brosky said.

Pentagon officials notified Congress yesterday that Rumsfeld's list of recommended closings will be delivered to lawmakers Friday morning, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said.

It will be the first step in shrinking the nation's domestic military holdings and freeing up money to upgrade bases and weapons systems. A national commission will review the Pentagon proposal and make recommendations to the White House. President Bush will send a final list to Congress in the fall.

For the 425 communities with military bases nationwide, closings mean the potential loss of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars from local economies.

Western Pennsylvania's bases provide at least 3,500 military and civilian jobs, according to state figures. The Airport Area Chamber of Commerce estimates that Pittsburgh-area bases have an economic impact of more than $300 million annually.

The high stakes have officials across the country girding for battle.

The state pumped $75,000 into the Dupuy study and has $1 million earmarked to appeal proposed closings.

"If any of our bases are on the closure list, we're going to fight back," Gov. Ed Rendell vowed Monday.

Plans to scale back the Air Force have the Rendell administration particularly concerned about the two air bases in Moon -- the Air Force Reserve 911th Airlift Wing and the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 171st Air Refueling Wing. The region's other major installation is the Army's Charles E. Kelly Support Facility in several locations, including Oakdale, Neville Island and Elrama, Washington County.

The 911th was targeted in 1995 in the most recent round of base closings, but was taken off the list after a committee led by Brosky proved the Air Force had miscalculated the facility's operating costs.

This time around, Brosky is pointing to Pittsburgh's world-class hospitals and central location in the East as reasons not only to keep but to expand military facilities here.

"We can fly anywhere within the country within three hours," he said.

State Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, said consolidating military operations here makes sense. The bases near the airport have about 10,000 acres available for expansion, and the state strongly supports the military, he said.

"If you're looking to consolidate military assets in an area where the community is friendly, this is the area," said Pippy, who served in Iraq with the Army Reserve's 322nd Engineer Company, headquartered in Kittanning, Armstrong County.

But military analyst John Pike said the idea of Pittsburgh as a backup center in case of a terrorist attack could be a tough sell. He's heard of no one in the Pentagon making plans for such a facility.

"They'd first have to convince the Pentagon that it's got a problem, and then they'd have to convince the Pentagon that this is the solution to it," said Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an online clearinghouse for military information and news.

Handicapping the Pentagon is tricky, Pike said, because little is known about defense officials' thinking on this round of base closings.

That contrasts to the 1990s, when post-Cold War closings were openly driven by a reduction of Army divisions from 18 to 10 and the shift of maintenance and repair work to private contractors.


Copyright 2005, The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.