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The Associated Press September 11, 2005

Cold War bases holding on, finding new missions

By Mary Clare Jalonick

Five northern-tier Air Force bases, a legacy of the Cold War along with the towns around them, have survived the latest federal base closing round by focusing on wide-open spaces and futuristic missions.

The bases that were the heart of the nation's nuclear structure in the middle of the 20th Century - F.E. Warren in Wyoming, Malmstrom in Montana, Ellsworth in South Dakota and Minot and Grand Forks in North Dakota - appear to have made it through their fourth base closing round since the Cold War.

The independent commission reviewing the Pentagon list issued a final draft to President Bush Thursday, and he is not expected to change it. Congress also is expected to approve the recommendations.

The northern tier bases became some of the nation's most important when the Soviet Union became a major threat to the United States. Nuclear missiles were scattered in rural areas throughout the northern Rocky Mountains and the upper Midwest, placed there because of relative proximity to the enemy. In the years since, many of the missiles have been removed and the region's military profile has fallen.

Advocates for the bases say that while their continued survival may be a surprise, there are practical reasons for saving them. One advantage is the wide open land and sky that will be at a premium as other areas of the country build up.

The bases are using that argument for new, forward-looking missions.

_ Grand Forks is losing its air tanker mission but is set to become a major outpost for unmanned aerial vehicles, flying drones that can relay information and fire missiles.

_ Pat McElgunn, director of the Ellsworth Task Force, said community leaders are talking to the Air Force about 747-style aircraft that will use a laser to repel missiles.

_ Advocates for Wyoming's F.E. Warren Air Force Base, which is too high in elevation for conventional aircraft at 6,200 feet, are hoping the base will be a part of growing military missions in space.

"The future is so uncertain," said Montana Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat. "And each passing year, it is more difficult to operate other bases compared to ours."

Baucus, who said only four flights a day pass over Malmstrom, has been working to reopen the base's runway, which was closed in a previous base closing round. He said the area is ideal for training and he would like to see new fighter planes come to the base.

There is another major reason for the survival of Malmstrom, Warren and Minot: The three bases are still home to 500 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, the country stockpiled during the Cold War. The Pentagon decided not to move the missiles or close any of the bases as part of this year's round of closings.

Some Air Force officials have hinted the number of missiles could be reduced in an ongoing Pentagon review of future military strategy, but Baucus argues the mission is still relevant.

"We can't turn our back on North Korea and Iran," he said.

Tucker Fagan, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council and an advocate for Warren, said the bases need contingency plans.

"In 50 years are ICBMs going to be in the inventory? Probably not," Fagan said. "I think all three (missile) bases are looking at follow-on missions."

Fagan said Warren, in Cheyenne, has weathered many changes since it was founded as protection against Indian attacks in the 1860s. The Wyoming base, he said, is ideally situated to launch military satellites and weapons systems into space. He suggests such missions could be the future of the base.

The prospect of new missions is good news for the towns that have grown around the bases, many of them dependent on the business and community the military created there.

Nowhere is that more evident than Rapid City in South Dakota. The Pentagon included Ellsworth on its list of recommendations in May, but the independent commission reviewing the list removed it in a surprise move last month.

Ellsworth's survival was a major victory for freshman Republican Sen. John Thune, who had argued that he would be in a better position to save the base than Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, whom Thune defeated last year.

The commission cited several reasons for saving the base, including the economic viability of the state. Ellsworth, home to B-1B bombers, is South Dakota's second-largest employer.

Paul Hirsch, director of review and analysis for the 1991 base closure commission and now a Washington defense lobbyist, said he believes the fate of Rapid City and the rest of the state weighed heavily in the commission's reasoning on Ellsworth.

"They are all human beings there," Hirsch said of the commission. "I think it played significantly in the final decision."

Other towns across the region also are dependent, financially and culturally. Warren Wenz, a Montana attorney who led efforts to save Malmstrom from closure this year, said the base is responsible for local sports programs in Great Falls, where it is located, and is "huge in terms of community service."

While working to save Grand Forks, advocates for the North Dakota base highlighted the base's involvement in cleaning up the town after floods ravaged the area in 1997.

The connections between towns and bases have led officials like Thune to work hard to save them. That factor may play a role in the bases' continued life, said John Pike, a military analyst with the Web site globalsecurity.org.

"They are one-company towns," Pike said. "That's going to drive the local political activism to keep the bases open."


Copyright 2005, The Associated Press