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Air base in Falls has its future at risk again <br /> Pentagon budget plan could result in closure

Seven years after surviving a near-death experience, the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station finds its future in question once again under a Pentagon budget blueprint released Thursday.

In a cost-cutting move, the Air Force said that it would retire 65 of the kind of transport planes that are based in the Falls -- though it did not yet say which bases would be losing those planes.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta asked Congress to approve a new base-closure commission to decide how to consolidate the nation's numerous military bases.

The last two base-closure commissions proposed shuttering the Falls facility but determined campaigns by local residents and federal lawmakers persuaded the commissions to reverse course.

Panetta said the cutbacks and base closures are necessary for the Department of Defense to meet a congressionally imposed target of cutting its budget by $487 billion over the coming decade.

"In this budget environment, we simply cannot sustain infrastructure that is beyond our needs or ability to maintain," Panetta said.

The Niagara Military Affairs Council, which led the fight to save the base the last time around, said that both parts of the Pentagon announcement merited serious concern.

For one thing, the reduction in the number of C-130 transport planes across the Air Force could mean a quick cut in the number of aircraft -- and personnel -- at the Niagara Falls base, which currently accommodates 12 of the airlift planes.

Overall, the Air Force operates more than 600 of the cargo planes, meaning that it plans to retire more than 10 percent of the fleet, focusing on the oldest ones.

Older planes are in operation at other bases, but Niagara Falls could lose its planes to bases where those older planes are retired, said Merrell A. Lane, chairman of the local military affairs council.

"There is a possibility they're going to need to backfill those aircraft," Lane said.

Cutting the number of cargo planes makes sense, Panetta said, because the revised budget will mean that the military will have fewer boots on the ground. The Army would shrink by 80,000 soldiers, to 490,000, by 2017, while the Marine Corps will be reduced from 202,000 today to 182,000 in five years.

"The changes to the size of our ground forces allowed us to examine the Air Force's airlift fleet," Panetta said. "Our intensive review determined that we could reduce, streamline and standardize our airlift fleet with minimal risk."

Panetta didn't say, though, how that reduction would affect the size of the Air Force Reserve and National Guard, which have units based in Niagara Falls.

Lane said the Niagara Falls base's supporters also were concerned about the Panetta proposal for another "BRAC," or Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Since the Falls base was proposed for closure both in the 2005 closure round and another a decade earlier, Lane said, it's possible that a new base-closure panel would do the same. "You'd think they might look at what's been done in the past and dust it off," Lane said.

Next week, Lane will travel to Washington with John A. Cooper, vice chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, to discuss the base with Pentagon officials and lawmakers.

Lane said the base, with 3,500 employees, is Niagara County's largest employer.

While Panetta offered no specifics on the base-closure plan, the Air Force Times reported Thursday that the military would seek two rounds of base closures: one next year and another two years later.

While it may be difficult to get Congress to approve a base-closure commission in an election year, Panetta said, such a commission is key "to identifying additional savings and implementing them as soon as possible."

Local lawmakers, however, signaled that Panetta might have a fight on his hands over the base-closure issue.

"I am concerned about the mention of a BRAC round, which can be very harmful to the economic well-being of many communities, without producing significant savings," said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I think we should not rush any BRAC proposal."

Meanwhile, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said: "We will work with our delegation partners, NIMAC and the community to do everything we can to preserve the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station."

Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said: "I have already held personal meetings with senior military officials, and have communicated with the administration about the importance of this installation."

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, who played a key role in saving the base during the last round of proposed base closures, said: "We know how difficult these BRAC commissions are because of all the work it took in 2005 to save it. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The Niagara Falls air base deserves to be the crown jewel of the Air Force."