Article and photo by Susan Mikula Campbell
Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta confirmed the importance of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station on his visit here Thursday.
"We are committed to maintaining this base for the future," he said. "I am going to work with your congressional delegation and the community to make sure we make the right decisions for this base."
And, although Panetta didn't specifically address the fate of the 107th Airlift Wing, he did hold out hope for the Air National Guard unit by saying he would be working to bring new missions to the base. Panetta also mentioned the updated C-130s to be brought here and the $6.1 million investment for a C-130 training simulator.
He did note that the New York Air National Guard is the largest in the country and an important part of national defense.
The 107th Guard unit currently works in tandem with the 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve on the base's C-130 aircraft, owned by the U.S. Air Force. Proposed budget cuts in Washington, D.C., have endangered the 107th's mission.
Col. Allan Swartzmiller, installation commander and 914th Airlift Wing commander, said this was the first time the base has had an actual secretary of defense visit. "Everyone was excited."
Now Panetta knows what NFARS looks like and got to see for himself the results of the investments DOD has made at the base in the past 10 years.
"He's certainly got tough decisions ahead of him," Swartzmiller said. "We grow and we shrink depending on the needs of the nation. Hopefully, we will still be part of that mission."
Panetta pointed out in his talk that reduction of the U.S. military's role in the Middle East and record budget deficits at home puts the country and its military at a turning point. However, he emphasized that remaining a strong military force is essential, but it will have to be smaller and leaner.
"You are critical to our strategy," he told the base's military personnel.
Panetta spoke privately with members of New York's congressional delegation, base officials, Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, military and local leaders and representatives of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which operates the Niagara Falls International Airport. After that meeting, he talked to a large group of reservists and members of the press in aircraft hangar 850.
Then, he took time to shake hands and pose for photos with individual reservists and present them with special Department of Defense medallions.
Before Panetta left, Niagara Military Affairs Chairman Merrell Lane and Vice Chairman John Cooper presented him with a framed print of a Bell X-1 aircraft flying over Niagara Falls.
Rep. Kathy Hochul, NY-26, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, personally invited Panetta to visit the base at a meeting at the Pentagon in March and has been working in the House of Representatives to push back on severe cuts proposed by the DOD.
"After listening to our presentation, I was delighted to hear the secretary's commitment to maintaining the base. Secretary Panetta's visit to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station gave him the opportunity to see the base and its value firsthand and to understand the vital role the base plays in protecting our regional and national security," Hochul said.