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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review June 22, 2005

911th shows its worth

By Brian Bowling

A local task force convinced a federal official Tuesday that the 911th Airlift Wing is more valuable than the Pentagon believes, lawmakers said.

If four other members of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission agree with retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd W. "Fig" Newton, the Air Force Reserve base in Moon could again survive a Defense Department attempt to close it.

Newton, one of nine commission members, toured the 911th in Moon with military and local officials and met privately with Gov. Ed Rendell, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and state Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon.

"He said to us, essentially, that 'If your purpose was to show that there was a substantial deviation in how the 911th was scored, mission accomplished,'" Murphy said.

The Pentagon cited inadequate space at the 911th as the primary reason for shuttering the base. Proving that claim wrong is key to pulling the facility off a proposed base closure list announced last month by the Defense Department.

Local leaders showed Newton 53 acres of tarmac -- marked off by heavy construction equipment -- that is available for expansion at the 911th, and said the Pentagon failed to take that acreage into account in its analysis. The extra space, officials say, would allow the 911th to handle 16 C-130 cargo planes, the Air Force's preferred plane for an airlift squadron. The 911th currently has 10 cargo planes.

Newton acknowledged that the Pentagon analysis overlooked the room for expansion at the 911th.

"Clearly I saw that there is land available here," Newton said at a news conference.

The Pentagon reorganization plan also would close the Army's Charles E. Kelly Support Facility in Collier and move the Army Reserve's 99th Regional Readiness Command from Moon to Fort Dix, N.J.

Nationally, the cost-cutting effort would close or reduce operations at 62 major bases and 775 smaller ones. The local bases provide 845 jobs directly and support an estimated 571 private-sector jobs.

Local efforts primarily have been focused on saving the 911th, largely because of the difficulty in making a strong case for the other two bases.

The base commission is reviewing the Pentagon proposal and will make final recommendations to the White House by Sept. 8. President Bush has said he will not overturn the commission's recommendations. Congress has the option of approving or rejecting the list in its entirety.

Swaying Newton on the question of space is only a first step to keeping the 911th open, Murphy said. Pit-BRAC, the local task force working to save the installation, also must convince four other members of the base commission -- enough to vote the 911th off the closure list.

The group's last chance to do that will come July 8 during a regional hearing before the commission in Baltimore.

Officials were confident yesterday that they had passed their first test.

"That doesn't say that we've hit a home run," Murphy said. "It says that we've got to first base."

Newton said he couldn't unilaterally rule on whether flawed Pentagon analysis is enough to save the 911th.

"It will certainly have an impact," he said.

Ultimately, a majority of the commission's members has to decide whether closing the 911th would hinder the military's effort to save money and realign its assets to better handle future military missions, he said.

"We'll look at which one has the highest military value and then move down from there," Newton said.

Still, his statement raised hopes, not only among task force members, but also among the 150 people who gathered for a rally at Cargo Area A in the Airside Business Park. They greeted Newton with chants of "Save Our Base" and "We Have Land."

"I get a real strong feeling that this guy is going to fight for us," said Jim Skoff, 69, of North Fayette, who attended the rally to show his support for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rendell said he was encouraged after observing briefings Newton received first from 911th officials, then from the task force.

Extra land wasn't the group's only pitch, the governor said. The task force pointed out that a dozen or more other agencies use the base's facilities rent-free, meaning they'd have to rent or buy space if the 911th closed. Newton also showed interest in Pit-BRAC's idea that the military should expand its presence at the airport instead of cutting bases and operations, he said.

"It doesn't mean we're in, but I think the locals did a great job and made some good points," Rendell said.

Rendell said the main challenge now is to condense the hours of information they gave Newton into a 30-minute pitch for the Baltimore hearing.

"If we can make a strong, focused presentation, I'm optimistic," he said.

John Pike, a national defense analyst who operates GlobalSecurity.org, said the governor has good reason for optimism that the 911th would be saved, as it was during the last round of closures in 1995.

The fact that Newton was willing to discuss the space issue so openly is a strong signal that the task force made an impact, Pike said.

"If it was a close call," Pike said, "I would have thought (Newton) would have been advised to hold his counsel rather than falsely raising hopes."

Pippy said the task force was able to highlight the land issue and several other errors in the Pentagon analysis, including the cost-effectiveness of the 911th. Since it shares space with Pittsburgh International Airport, the reserve base doesn't have to pay for runway maintenance, snow removal or firefighting equipment, he said. The 911th also is one of a few military air bases with a choice of four runways, he added.

"We made a great case," Pippy said.


Copyright 2005, The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.