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Pentagon aims to ease job cuts cited by Air Force Falls air base may benefit amid restoration of 2,183

The Pentagon plans to restore nearly 2,200 of the 5,100 Air National Guard positions that the Air Force had slated for elimination, and Congress may go even further, possibly brightening prospects that an Air National Guard unit based in Niagara Falls might be saved in some form.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced the Pentagon's plans in a letter to lawmakers that arrived Tuesday on Capitol Hill, and while Panetta did not specify the number of Guard slots to be saved, other sources put the exact number at 2,183, or 42.8 percent.

The restored positions will be at units that fly C-130 cargo planes -- such as the 107th Airlift Wing in Niagara Falls -- but the Pentagon did not say which units would be spared. So it remains possible that the 107th will find its mission ended and its 845 jobs eliminated in the Pentagon budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon announcement and the action brewing on Capitol Hill left advocates of the Niagara Falls base somewhat more optimistic than they had been about the future of the 107th.

"We've been hoping for a good outcome, and possibly there is going to be one," said Merrell A. Lane, chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council.

In his letter to lawmakers, Panetta said the changes in the Air Force's proposed budget for fiscal 2013 came in response to concerns from the Council of Governors, which had complained that the Guard cutbacks could leave them shorthanded in case of emergency.

"We recognize the important role that these lift aircraft play in our support to civil authorities and to states -- particularly in the event of natural disasters," he added.

Under the $400 million Panetta proposal, 24 of the 65 C-130s that the Air Force had planned to retire would be restored to Air National Guard units.

Panetta's announcement amounts to an "unprecedented and historic step" to try to address the governors' concerns about Pentagon-driven cuts in state-based National Guard units, said Krista Zaharias, spokeswoman for the National Governors Association.

Yet Zaharias suggested that the plan does not go far enough.

"The proposal put forth by DoD represents a previous offer provided by the Air Force that fell short of addressing governors' concerns regarding Air National Guard manpower, fighter aircraft and airlift capability," she said. "As commanders-in-chief of their Guard, governors will now work with Congress to address these concerns."

Meanwhile, Bethany Lesser, a spokeswoman for Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said: "While the reported response from the Department of Defense looks like a positive step, Sen. Gillibrand will reserve judgment until seeing all of the details."

Panetta's letter to the lawmakers came amid signs that Congress is about to take matters into its own hands and restore even more Guard slots.

The House Armed Services Committee is set to mark up the Fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization bill May 9. Sources said lawmakers from both parties are working on a proposal to restore at least 3,500 Air National Guard slots and perhaps all 5,100 that the Air Force originally wanted to eliminate.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is looking at doing something similar, if not identical, in its markup on that legislation in mid-May, sources said.

That panel's chairman, Sen. Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., and other senators from both parties have complained that the Pentagon's original proposal put too much of the budget-cutting burden on the Air National Guard rather than spreading the pain more evenly across the Air Force.

Levin, in a statement, sounded less than satisfied with Panetta's revised plan for cutting the Guard. "The 24 additional C-130s that Secretary Panetta is recommending for the Air National Guard represent progress toward restoring some proportionality to the Air Force's proposed budget," he said. "I will continue to look for mitigating steps in order to achieve proportionality in any cuts to the Air Force."

In addition, Gillibrand, a member of the Armed Services Committee, is working on legislative language that would require the Pentagon to provide a much more complete analysis of the justification for and impact of proposed force reductions such as those announced by the Air Force. "Sen. Gillibrand will continue to work on legislative solutions to fix the process for considering future proposals that would drastically change our force structure and undermine our Air National Guard," Lesser said.

Panetta's proposal should by no means be read as a guarantee that the 845 jobs at the 107th, including 580 part-time Guard slots, will be saved, said congressional aides and other sources with knowledge of the Pentagon plan.

In fact, the sources said, the unit's future remains very much up in the air. The unit could survive intact, it could shrink and get a new spy plane mission -- as the Council of Governors has suggested -- or it could lose its mission and all of its personnel.

Lane, head of the local military advocacy group, is continuing to hope for the best. "Maybe," he said, "there will be a fair conclusion to this."

email: jzremski@buffnews.com