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Falls base boosted by key Senate panel Armed Services Committee affirms funding bill with safeguards for local Guard unit

An Air National Guard unit based in Niagara Falls saw its odds of survival skyrocket Thursday, as the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a $631 billion defense authorization bill that includes multiple provisions aimed at saving such units from the Air Force's budget ax.

The legislation funds the 107th Airlift Wing and similar units for the 2013 fiscal year, much like companion legislation passed by the House last week.

But the Senate bill goes much further, putting in place two studies that must be completed before the Pentagon can close such units -- in effect, making it more difficult for the Defense Department to propose such closures in 2014, as well as in 2013.

"We were very successful on the Guard issues," said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand," D-N.Y., an Armed Services Committee member who pushed hard for the language in the bill that would save the Niagara Falls unit. "We were very successful at maintaining missions, which is very exciting for Niagara and other places."

The measure, which is expected to go to the Senate floor sometime this summer, passed unanimously.

Support for saving Air National Guard units was bipartisan, with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., inserting language into the bill that bars the Air Force from moving or retiring Guard planes or personnel in fiscal 2013.

The Air Force had proposed eliminating 5,100 Guard personnel nationwide. Under that proposal, the 845 people who work at the Niagara Falls unit, including 580 part-time Guard members, would have lost their jobs as the unit's mission would have been eliminated.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., said the Air Force proposal disproportionately hurt the Guard and Reserve forces in comparison with the active-duty Air Force.

"There was a broad feeling in the committee that the Air Force did not have a basis that was solid for where they were making these reductions," Levin said.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, ranking Republican on the committee, cited another factor in the move to save the Guard units.

"Never underestimate the influence of the National Guard," McCain said.

In going further than the House bill, the Senate version sets up a commission, due to report back in March, to make recommendations to Congress on the future structure of the Air Force.

"We also, relative to the Guard, want to try to prevent this kind of decision from being made in the future with as little care as this one was made [by the Air Force]," Levin said.

In addition, the bill calls for the Government Accountability Office to do a study by March on the kind of rules that should guide the entire Defense Department and Congress in coming up with proposals to restructure the forces.

Sources close to the issue believe that the combined impact of those two studies could be to require the Air Force to delay any major National Guard shifts until the 2015 budget year. That's because the 2014 Pentagon budget proposal will have to be drawn up before those two studies are completed.

Beyond that, the bill includes language barring the Pentagon from closing a base piece-by-piece over a number of years, instead forcing all such closures to go through the Base Realignment and Closure Commission process, or BRAC, which involves a panel created by Congress to review such proposed moves.

That's important to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station because if the 107th were to be shut down, it would mean the Pentagon would have to go through the rigorous BRAC process if it wanted to close the 914th Airlift Wing, the Reserve unit at the base.

Finally, the Senate bill includes $6.1 million in funding for a flight simulator for C-130 cargo planes at Niagara -- money that's now practically a done deal, given that it's also set aside in separate House and Senate legislation appropriating funds for such projects in 2013.

All in all, "it was a very positive markup for New York," Gillibrand said. "I feel very positive moving forward."

The head of the Niagara Military Affairs Council agreed.

"We were very much encouraged by the developments" in the Senate, said Merrell A. Lane, the group's chairman.

Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, who pushed for language safeguarding the Niagara unit in the House version of the bill, said: "While the fight isn't over, this is another important step in the process of protecting the 107th Airlift Wing."

Gillibrand acknowledged, though, that once the Senate bill passes, House and Senate negotiators will likely do battle over many other provisions of the massive defense authorization.

While both bills bode well for the Niagara base, in many ways they are very different, with the House authorizing $4 billion more in spending than the Senate committee did and drawing a veto threat from the White House.

The House bill also does not include another provision that Gillibrand got inserted into the Senate bill, which calls for a report on the possibility of women serving in combat.

Despite the differences in the two bills, Levin said he was confident that a compromise defense authorization would be crafted, as it has for the last 51 years.

And while many parts of that final legislation remain unknown, congressional sources said the language protecting Air National Guard units in both bills is so clear that it's certain to be included in the final version.

Still, "we can't and won't let up on the gas in the coming months as we work to strengthen the [Niagara] base and keep it at the center of the Air Force's future plans," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who lobbied members of the Armed Services Committee on behalf of the Niagara base.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com