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Gannett News Service July 10, 2005

Can clout save 179th?

Oxley's ties Role of politics Long odds Reason to hope

By Greg Wright

WASHINGTON -- Could friends in high places help save Ohio's 179th Airlift Wing? Maybe, according to military experts.

Ohio notables, including Gov. Bob Taft, Republican Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich and Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Findlay, have rallied around the 179th, the Ohio Air National Guard unit based in Mansfield.

Having high-level lawmakers push your case "might make it a little better, but I wouldn't necessarily count on it being that measurable or significant," said John Pike, director of the GlobalSecurity.org defense analysis firm.

The Pentagon said in May it wants to close the 179th and move its eight C-130H transport planes to Alabama and Arkansas bases. But an independent Base Realignment and Closure commission could reverse plans to shut down or realign Mansfield and other bases in a final list that is due to President Bush by Sept. 8.

The nine BRAC commissioners are hearing local input before releasing the final list.

DeWine led an Ohio delegation to Buffalo, N.Y., on June 27 to testify for two hours before BRAC Commission chairman Anthony Principi and three other commissioners.

Oxley, whose 4th Congressional District includes Mansfield, was in the Buckeye delegation. He promised to use his clout to keep Mansfield open. The facility supports 250 full- and 750 part-time jobs, so shutting it would hurt the region's economy, Oxley said.

Oxley, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, served in Congress with BRAC commissioner James Bilbray, a former Democratic congressman from Nevada, and commissioner James Hansen, a former Republican lawmaker from Utah.

"Mr. Oxley has earned much respect in Washington and is a credible advocate on behalf of Mansfield's 179th Airlift Wing," Oxley spokesman Tim Johnson said. "His experience and years of work for his constituents are helping to shape Mansfield's argument to the BRAC Commission."

Residents are glad lawmakers are trying to keep the 179th in Mansfield.

"They all have been outspoken for the 179th," retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Fred Larson said. The former commander of the 179th, Larson is co-chairman of a Richland County community group pressing to keep the airlift wing in town.

The base closure and realignment process was designed to be analytical, with politics playing very little in decision making, said Marcus Corbin, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a defense research group.

So although Republicans control the White House and Congress, having a prominent Republican on your side is no guarantee your base will be saved, said Michele Flournoy, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank.

But politics do creep into the process, said John Allen Williams, a professor who follows defense policy at Loyola University Chicago. "And given that no analysis is 100 percent watertight, there is always some room for discretion and leeway," he said.

Lawmakers, who have more access to Pentagon officials, also help communities form strategies to keep a local base from being closed or reorganized, said Harry Kelso, a Richmond, Va., base closure expert.

Odds that a base can escape closure are not good, Kelso said. Only about one of 10 bases on the preliminary Pentagon realignment and closure list escaped the final cut during four previous BRAC rounds since 1988, he said.

But Mansfield has reason to hope, Kelso said.

The BRAC commission sent a letter to the Pentagon on July 1, asking for more information on why it wants to close or realign Air National Guard units.

Commissioners asked whether the Pentagon told governors and state adjutant generals about Air National Guard closure and realignment plans. They also wanted to know whether Pentagon plans for Air National Guard units could hamper homeland defense and homeland security missions.

State adjutant generals in charge of guard units raised these issues with BRAC commissioners, Kelso said. Oxley said he and Ohio adjutant general Maj. Gen. Gregory Wayt and other officials voiced similar concerns.

"The fact they have written this letter indicates they are taking a pretty hard look at things," Kelso said.

But Pike said Mansfield will have to wait until September to find out if Ohio officials and the adjutant generals are successful.

Copyright 2005, Gannett News Service