The fate of Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station sits locked away in the Pentagon, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his aides decide which of the nation's 425 military bases should be closed.
Rumsfeld is scheduled to recommend shutting about 85 of those bases to a nonpartisan commission on or before May 16, and until then, everything is secret.
But that has not stopped congressional aides and military experts from making educated guesses. They speculate that the Niagara base is in competition with two others, in Pittsburgh and in Youngstown, Ohio. Those bases have Air Reserve units that perform the same mission and fly the same planes as the 914th Airlift Wing in Niagara Falls.
That competition makes for nerve-racking times in Niagara Falls, which gets a huge economic boost from the base's 169 full-time jobs and the visits of 2,037 Reservists and Guard members.
"Keeping the base open is the top economic priority in this area," said John Cooper, a third-generation owner of a sign company and vice chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, which is fighting for the base's survival.
Since New York has five part-time air bases, Washington sources said, they expect the state to lose at least one facility.
But that doesn't mean Niagara is fighting for survival against Hancock Field in Syracuse or air bases in Rome, Schenectady, the Hudson Valley or Long Island.
It's in a competition to prove its worth. The commission's top criterion will be each base's military capabilities and impact on the nation's war-fighting ability.
Record of performance
The Niagara base has a lot going for it, said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport. Its units have been called to active duty several times in recent years and have aided in the war in Iraq. They are noted for being well-trained. And the Niagara Falls community has rallied around the base in an effort to prove its value to the Pentagon.
The Air Force also does not appear to be overloaded with units that handle the kind of transport duties performed by the 914th.
"I think they're not likely to mess much with airlift," said James Starr, a retired lieutenant colonel and Air Force director for the Reserve Officers Association. "They need everything they can get."
But military experts said the base has one strike against it: The Pentagon is looking for $7 billion in savings at a time when the Army is growing, meaning that it could propose massive Air Reserve and Guard cutbacks.
"Any community with a Guard or Reserve base should be concerned," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a national security think tank.
Since the Base Realignment and Closure Commission will study the mission of each base, experts said it makes the most sense for them to study Niagara in comparison with similar bases in Pittsburgh and Youngstown.
Niagara Falls appears to have one advantage: It's the only base in the state with an airlift wing, and it can draw reservists from several highly populated upstate metro areas spread across several hundred miles.
In contrast, Pittsburgh and Youngstown are only 67 miles apart and there's another National Guard base flying cargo planes in Mansfield, Ohio, 110 miles west of Youngstown.
This could mean that eliminating the Niagara Falls base would hurt recruiting more than eliminating one of the bases strung so close together to the south.
"I haven't heard so much talk about Niagara Falls," said Sally Haas, president of the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, which is leading an effort to save that base. "Youngstown? I've heard that."
One other factor separates Niagara Falls from the bases in Pittsburgh and Youngstown: It has a National Guard unit, the 107th Air Refueling Wing.
It's unclear how, or if, this will affect the base-closure process.
Not a waste of money
"We are concerned about Niagara Falls," New York Gov. George E. Pataki said Thursday while in Washington.
If the base-closure commission were to recommending closing the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, it is unclear what would happen to the Guard unit based there, Pataki said, given that the Guard unit is a tenant.
Then again, the base-closure commission could recommend shutting down the Niagara Falls Guard unit, too. While previous commissions have generally looked at Guard units as state operations that are not to be touched, that is not expected to be the case this time.
"They are determined to eliminate waste," said Loren B. Thompson, a national security expert at the Lexington Institute think tank.
And New York lawmakers are just as determined to prove that the state's bases are not wasteful.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has met with Rumsfeld's top aide on the base-closure issue, along with Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff.
Rep. John McHugh of Watertown, a Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, has led the fight to save Fort Drum, the state's largest military facility, which most experts expect will survive the cutbacks.
And Pataki hired Akin Gump, the powerhouse lobbying firm that uses former Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst, as the state's lobbyist on the issue.
"It's going to end up costing us in the millions, but it's worth it," Pataki said, noting that the state is still recovering from the loss of air bases in the North Country and the Rome area a decade ago. "You have to make the case."
Other states are making the case, too. Florida, for example, is paying $50,000 a month for its lobbyists, including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.
And many communities across the country have developed grass-roots efforts like the one in Niagara Falls, which coalesced into a 500-strong organization of local businesspeople, community leaders and elected representatives.
Military officials are not allowed to discuss the commission. "Our focus is on the mission," said Col. James B. Roberts, commander of the 914th. "And the job is too important to be distracted."
So members of the Niagara Military Affairs Council are speaking out in defense of the base. They tout a recent deal with the state Power Authority that cut power rates at the base by 24 percent, plus the base's location near the Canadian border.
Community leaders hope that this is enough to keep the 58-year-old base up and running, but the issue is shrouded in uncertainty.
"It's Washington," said Merrell Lane, chairman of the council. "Anything could happen."