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New mission for air base; Proposal for research partnership with UB could solidify Falls unit

In what may prove to be part of the answer to bringing about more of a 21st century approach to the military and strengthening the mission of the Niagara Falls air base, Sen. Charles E. Schumer's proposed research partnership between the base and the University at Buffalo should gather support.

Schumer's idea is to take advantage of the base's proximity to Western New York's institutions of higher education and private sector industries by turning the base into the Air Force's next research hub. It would be a win for the base and for the Pentagon.

It could also help fend off future attempts by budget-cutters to close the base.

The air base has had to defend its very existence twice in seven years, the latest salvo launched by the Air Force, which proposed eliminating 5,100 Air National Guard personnel nationwide. That plan would have put the 845 people who work at the Niagara Falls unit, including 580 part-time Guard members, out of a job because the unit's mission would have been eliminated.

Just a couple of months ago, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a $631 billion defense authorization bill. It includes provisions designed to save many of those threatened jobs, and funds the 107th Airlift Wing at the base for the 2013 fiscal year. The House has passed a similar bill, although the Senate went further by requiring safeguards in the form of a commission to make recommendations to Congress on the future structure of the Air Force.

The bill also calls for the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study by March on the type of rules that should guide the Defense Department and Congress in devising proposals to restructure the Air Force. It also includes language preventing the Pentagon from closing a base in pieces over a number of years.

Further strengthening the case for the Falls air base, the Senate bill includes $6.1 million to locate a flight simulator for C-130 cargo planes at the base. As reported by News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski, money is also set aside in separate House and Senate legislation appropriating funds for such projects in 2013.

The Western New York congressional delegation, Niagara Military Affairs Council and other supporters of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station are at the center of the ongoing fight to keep the base open and prove its viability.

The base is vital not only because of the jobs it brings to the area, but for its key location on the nation's border. A new mission drawing on the area's research expertise will help the Air Force deal with tomorrow's challenges.