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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Buffalo News June 26, 2005

'Mega base' in Little Rock is key to Falls station's fate

The Air Force wants to consolidate its airplanes; opponents say the plan has its own problems

By Jerry Zremski

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. - Dozens of hulking gray transport planes bake in the summer sun here, stretching wing to wing across a vast concrete ramp and far into the distance.

But there's room for eight more from the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, and then some.

If the Air Force gets its way, this 50-year-old base in the flatlands east of the Ozarks will soon become a "mega-base," home to 116 of those C-130 airlift planes. And several small bases like the one in Niagara Falls will become history.

An independent base closure commission, consisting of retired military and government officials, will discuss the proposed Niagara closure at a hearing at the University at Buffalo Monday. While no decisions are expected Monday, a vote of five of the nine commissioners can save the Niagara base.

In deciding whether to do that, the commissioners' eyes might well turn to Little Rock, to what's already called "the C-130 Center of Excellence."

Niagara supporters question whether it's wise to put so many planes at one base.

"It's astonishing to me that the military is about to make the same mistake it made in the 1940s, when it made so much of the Navy vulnerable to Japanese bombers," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport.

Pentagon leaders say there's no cause for concern. They note that the nation will still have hundreds of C-130s elsewhere, while consolidating its active-duty transport planes.

"From an operational, logistics standpoint, we're going to be more effective," said Maj. Gen. Gary W. Heckman, who co-chaired the panel that drew up the Air Force plan.

In the end, defense experts said, the base closure decision will come down to military value, the key criteria that's supposed to guide the process.

But the odds are against the Niagara Falls base. In past base closures, the commission has accepted 85 percent of the Pentagon's recommendations. And now the Pentagon recommends expanding the Air Force's central C-130 training facility into the hub of the plane's flying network. "Everyone realizes that, if this happens, Little Rock will be the center of the universe for C-130s," said Col. Joseph M. Reheiser, the base commander.

The base, about 20 miles north of downtown Little Rock, already looks like the center of that universe. Pilots from throughout the military and 28 allied nations train there, so it's common to see one or two of the propeller-driven behemoths cruising through the skies above the base.

The Air Force chose Little Rock for expansion over a base in Texas that is targeted to become the national hub for B-1 bombers and a North Carolina base facility that was too small. Little Rock will get 49 planes from those two bases and 28 from Reserve and Guard bases like the one in Niagara Falls.

"There will be fewer Guardsmen and fewer reservists flying C-130s," Heckman said.

Niagara fans find faults

Supporters of the Niagara facility say that, while the base also would lose a National Guard unit that flies refueling tankers, the Little Rock build-up is central to the proposed closing. They dispute the rationale the Pentagon developed to try to make it happen.

While the Pentagon says that closing the Niagara facility would save $199 million over 20 years, John M. Simmons, New York's base closure lobbyist, disagreed.

He said those costs are grossly inflated because they include assumptions that manpower costs will simply disappear, when in fact they will simply be transferred to active-duty units at Little Rock.

Niagara boosters also question placing a mega-base in a region that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ranks as high-risk for severe tornados. Reheiser said the military has plenty of bases in places prone to bad weather, and locals note that tornados have never done major damage at the base.

But the Niagara advocates have some history on their side.

In 1976, a tornado destroyed the downtown of Cabot, Ark., 10 miles north of the base. And in 1952, a tornado struck a B-36 bomber base in Fort Worth, Texas, 350 miles to the west of Little Rock.

The storm "scattered the huge planes like they were empty milk cartons," and disabled them for about five weeks, Don Pyeatt, historian for the 7th Bomb Wing B-36 Association, wrote on his Web site.

A terrorist act could also wreak havoc at Little Rock, said Col. Robin Pfeil, a former vice commander at the Niagara base.

"One loose nuke could wipe out 116 airplanes," Pfeil said. "That's the reason for dispersing planes - so you don't get them all wiped out at one time."

Niagara advocates also say Pentagon decision makers are ignoring the base's stellar recruitment and retention record - and discouraging people from joining the Air Guard and Reserves by forcing them to serve far from home.

"You're going to have 5,000 people traveling all over the place, based on what's proposed," said James W. Starr, a retired colonel and Air Force director for the Reserve Officers Association. "People are not going to want to do that."

Change has benefits

Many military experts say, however, that those concerns pale in comparison to the benefits of concentrating more planes in fewer locations.

Such moves should save money, said Christopher Hellman, a base closure expert at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, a nonprofit that monitors defense spending.

"I think a lot of the reasons that some of these planes were so widely dispersed were political," Hellman said, since members of Congress worked to preserve their own small pieces of America's military might.

By putting large number of planes all in central locations, the Air Force hopes to consolidate maintenance and support operations.

Efficiency isn't the only reason behind the Air Force's recommendation, however. With so much of its airlift capability concentrated in the Reserves and the National Guard, the Air Force overburdens its part-time airmen, Heckman said.

For proof, defense analysts point to a National Guard unit in Mississippi that flies C-17 transports refusing its call-up to Iraq.

"That upset the Air Force quite a bit," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank near Washington. "And it kind of underscores the problem of dealing with the Guard and Reserve."

Excitement in Arkansas

Even with the consolidation, the majority of the C-130 fleet which includes more than 400 planes - would remain with the Guard and Reserves.

But Little Rock would be home to more planes than it has had since the 1980s. Air Force logisticians at first wondered if the expansion would overtax the runway while overcrowding the airspace above Little Rock.

Heckman said those concerns would have stood in the way only if the Air Force had dramatically expanded the base's training mission, which would have meant many more flights coming and going every day.

As it stands, the new active duty forces at Little Rock will be doing just what the 914th Airlift Wing in Niagara Falls has been doing: flying missions overseas. That means many of the planes based in Little Rock would be gone at any one time.

"It's not that sexy, but if you look at the war, the majority of the missions are being flown by airlift," said Lt. Jon Quinlan, spokesman for the base.

Some construction, mostly to house troops, would have to take place at Little Rock. But Reheiser said it's too early to estimate the cost.

Leaders in the surrounding communities say they are thrilled about the expansion, which would bring nearly 3,900 jobs to central Arkansas.

"There's been no complaints to my office," said Tommy Swaim, longtime mayor of Jacksonville, the community that hosts the base. "There's just a lot of excitement about it."

Foes say move is misuse

The excitement in Arkansas is matched in intensity by the anger in Niagara Falls. Officials like Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, see the Niagara base as a pawn in the Pentagon's game of shifting resources away from the Reserves and toward active-duty bases.

"It's a misuse of the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) process," said Reynolds, noting that Congress passed the bill setting up the base-closure process to find wasteful facilities, not to reorganize the military.

Yet Heckman said there was no way to look at individual bases without determining how they would fit into the Air Force's overall plans.

"Are we doing it to reshape? You bet," Heckman said. "There is a fundamental reshaping of the Air Force, and it is central to the BRAC."

It's a reshaping that makes sense now, but that never could have been considered back when the Soviet Union had countless missiles it could point at U.S. bases, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank.

"Twenty years ago, it would have been regarded as insanity," Pike said.

Copyright 2005, The Buffalo News