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Air Force draws criticism on air base memo; Sources call document's dismissal of governors' plan to save jobs 'deceptive'

The Air Force says a proposal to save Air National Guard slots in Niagara Falls and around the country would harm military readiness -- but that conclusion is not based on the plan that a bipartisan group of governors suggested to preserve those Guard jobs.

Instead, the Air Force conclusion is based on two scenarios the Air Force itself drew up for keeping those Guard slots alive -- scenarios that, other knowledgeable sources say, appear to be purposefully deceptive and drastic.

"It is misleading, to say the least," said Heather E. Hogsett, who was involved in drawing up the Council of Governors plan to preserve the Guard slots, which the Air Force rejected last week.

"It's pretty disingenuous," said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association.

At issue is a memo the Air Force sent last week to congressional staffers.

While the memo rejects the Council of Governors plan, it is not the final decision; top officials at the Department of Defense continue to review the governors' alternative, and Congress may draw up its own alternative to save National Guard slots.

Nevertheless, the Air Force memo is significant because it concludes the Council of Governors plan will harm military readiness and cost more than the fiscal 2013 budget the Air Force proposed, which aims to cut 5,000 National Guard slots nationwide.

The governors' proposal, in contrast, would save 3,000 of those Guard slots while trimming an additional 2,500 active duty positions in the Air Force.

The governors' plan would also save an undetermined number of the 845 jobs, including 580 part-time Guard slots, at the Air National Guard unit based in Niagara Falls. While the Air Force plan would eliminate the jobs at the 107th Airlift Wing in Niagara Falls, the governors' plan would give the 107th a new mission: flying spy planes.

The Air Force memo reaches a damning conclusion about the governors' proposal.

"The factual conclusion of the evaluation was that the CoG proposal would increase costs and produce adverse impacts to the AF's risk-balanced force structure and combat power," the memo said. "The CoG proposal did not meet any of the criteria using either sourcing option."

The trouble is, the Council of Governors didn't suggest either of the two "sourcing options" that the Air Force relies upon to discredit the governors' proposal. The Air Force suggested them.

But the memo never directly says that the sourcing options -- that is, the alternatives for cutting active-duty positions in order to save spots in the National Guard -- are the Air Force's proposals rather than the governors'.

That being the case, Hogsett said she's been fielding phone calls from people who've seen the Air Force memo and mistakenly believe the Council of Governors is proposing the exact personnel moves that were really the Air Force's concoction.

"I don't think it's clear at all" in the Air Force memo that the personnel shifts being suggested are the Air Force's own proposals, she said.

Both of the "sourcing options" involve a dramatic realignment of the Air Force's F-16 fighter plane squadrons. The number of F-16s flown by active duty forces would be reduced, as would the size of F-16 squadrons, to make up for the fact that additional Air National Guard units would stay in business.

"Studies over the years have consistently shown that this leads to reduced efficiency, reduced deployment capability, decreased readiness, and higher costs," the Air Force said of the proposal to shrink the size of F-16 squadrons from 24 aircraft to 18.

Such a major realignment of the F-16 squadrons would be a dramatic move because the Air Force has relied heavily on those fighter planes in its recent missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

The Air Force would not discuss the memo rejecting the Council of Governors proposal because it was "pre-decisional," said Lt. Col. John Dorrian, an Air Force spokesman, said

But a source closely connected with the Pentagon speculated that the Air Force focused on cutting F-16s because suggesting such a dramatic move -- and associating it with the Council of Governors plan -- could doom the governors' efforts to save Guard slots.

"The Air Force is making it as difficult as possible" for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to consider the Council of Governors plan as a viable alternative, that source said.

Reducing the number of active-duty fighter planes would by no means be the only way to pay for keeping 3,000 Guard slots on the books, that source added.

After all, the Air Force has 332,800 active duty personnel slots and approximately 5,500 planes in service, and the F-16 is one of more than 40 fixed-wing aircraft in the U.S. fleet.

The Air Force memo went to staff members on Capitol Hill who will be involved as Congress considers the defense authorization bill for fiscal 2013. The House Armed Services Committee will mark up that bill later this month, with the Senate Armed Services Committee to follow in May.

Congressional sources said lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill are considering redrawing the Air Force spending plans included in that bill in order to save the Guard positions, which many governors have said are vital for their response to natural disasters.

"I don't know how this memo helps them," Goheen, of the National Guard Association, said of the Air Force. "I think it probably hurts them."

Also among those mystified by the Air Force memo was John A. Cooper Sr., vice chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, which is lobbying to save the Guard unit at the Niagara Falls base. "The Air Force mentions that its criteria have not been met -- but then goes on to consider scenarios that were not proposed in the Council of Governors document as far as we can see," Cooper said.

To Cooper, the Air Force memo brought back memories of the 2005 fight to save the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

At the time, the Air Force proposed closing the local base and transferring the cargo planes there to a base in Little Rock, Ark., but that proposal was defeated after it became clear that the move to Arkansas would be nearly three times as costly than the Air Force originally projected.

Cooper dismissed the Air Force rejection of the governors' plan as "a bump in the road."

"We have the luxury of having been through this before in 2005 BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure Commission)," Cooper said, "where it seems that documents do not always deal with the facts and require analysis by civilian organizations like ours."

email: jzremski@buffnews.com