Photo and story by Susan Mikula Campbell
The troops are rallying to once again fight for the survival of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, but these fighters aren't necessarily wearing uniforms.
The Niagara Military Affairs Council is wasting no time in the wake of a Jan. 26 announcement by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that could again put the base in danger of closing. They are taking a proactive approach.
NIMAC Chairman Merrell Lane and Vice Chairman John A. Cooper Sr. were in Washington, D.C., this week for meetings with the Pentagon and the local Congressional delegation.
Congresswoman Kathy Hochul, NY-26, promised local legislators would mount a "full-court press" to protect the base after meeting with Col. Allan L. Swartzmiller and Col. Jim S. McCready Jr. at the facility on Tuesday.
The air base, with the help of successful campaigns by NIMAC, survived BRAC (Base Realignment and Closures) in 1995 and 2005. The base is Niagara County's largest employer.
"We must assume that we will once again be a potential target," Lane said before leaving for Washington for a previously scheduled Air Force Chief of Staff Civic Leader Program meeting.
Panetta announced that he will seek Congressional approval to conduct two new rounds of BRACs to meet budgetary cuts that reduce defense spending by nearly $500 billion in the next 10 years.
Cooper, who was at the base for Hochul's visit, said that it's very early in the process and the Falls base currently is not on a BRAC list. Although Panetta has talked about cutting back C-130 aircraft, the cargo plane currently used at the base, C-130s still are needed on the East Coast, he said.
Hochul, a new member of the House Armed Services Committee, said her visit was a fact-finding mission for herself.
"This is an incredible facility," she said.
She pointed out that the Falls base is in the process of being approved as a new location for a U.S. Border Patrol office. Currently in Niagara County, Border Patrol has about 63 officers working out of a site near Niagara University and covers the waterways from North Tonawanda through Somerset. Hochul also suggested cyber security could be a new direction for the base.
She added that more than $180 million has been spent for new construction at the base, including a new fire and rescue facility, firing range and a reserve center.
She also praised the base's record, not only with missions to the Middle East, but locally, most recently assisting with the huge tire fire in Lockport.
She recognizes the need for federal budget cuts, and while the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station is not yet "on the chopping block," Hochul said the facility is too important to let go.
"I want to let the community know their congressional delegation is going to fight to the bitter end to protect this air base," she said.
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, NY-28, has been a staunch supporter of the base during the BRAC fights and afterwards, bringing in federal funds for improvements.
She announced Friday that she will continue to fight on behalf of the base.
"We know how difficult defense cutbacks and BRAC commissions are because of all the work it took in 2005 to save the base," said Slaughter. "I've said it before and I'll say it again, the Niagara Falls Air Base deserves to be the crown jewel of the Air Force. I've been proud to join my colleagues in conversations about the importance of the air base for Western New York and the United States military."
After the 2005 BRAC, the 914th Airlift Wing (Air Force Reserve) and 107th Airlift Wing (Air National Guard) were linked to conduct C-130 operations in a formal association. It is only the second Guard-Reserve association in place in the Air Force, and operational readiness inspections have shown it to be a success, according to NIMAC. The base currently has 12 C-130s. The Air Force plans to retire 65 of its C-130s, which could affect the Niagara Falls base. C-130s are the workhorses of the military. At about 100 feet long and 136 feet wide, they not only move equipment, supplies and soldiers and bring back the injured, but have been used in a variety of other ways, from gunship to psychological warfare to rescue.
Cooper said NIMAC will continue to work with those who support retention of the base.
"We will once again do all that we can, along with concerned citizens, state and local government, as well as the delegation, to make sure the Pentagon understands the high military value of the base and the two wings there," he said.