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Change, or lose out Niagara Falls air base and the Pentagon must adapt to the new defense reality

Slowly, and with gathering force, the Niagara Falls air base seems to be winning its second reprieve in seven years. Each week seems to bring more news that the 107th Airlift Wing will survive for a while longer.

It is terrific news, but it is also news that contains the seeds of future uncertainty. The world is changing, and it is best to prepare for it now. Indeed, the Senate is already beginning that necessary work.

This week's good news emanated from the Senate Armed Services Committee, which, in a bipartisan vote, approved a $631 billion defense authorization bill that includes several provisions aimed at preserving this unit and others around the country. Supporters of the base are increasingly optimistic that it will once again survive.

But no one should doubt that change is coming, certainly to the military generally and possibly to the Niagara Falls base. When that will happen is anybody's guess, but more likely sooner than later. The forces of national defense and economics make it inevitable.

The federal budget deficit demands attention — serious attention — which means, in part, cutting costs in high-dollar areas of the budget. That includes Social Security and Medicare, but it also must include the military.

What is more, as Americans have heard many times in recent years, the kinds of wars this nation is apt to face in the future will look more like the raid that killed Osama bin Laden than they will like World War II, or even the war in Iraq. Smaller-scale operations by more-nimble forces are going to be the order of the day.

Those two forces — economics and military tactics — are irresistible for any country that aims to survive. Change is coming. Indeed, and perhaps foolishly, Congress has already put in place a mechanism that will slash at military spending. As part of last year's brinkmanship over the federal debt limit, Congress gave itself a task: Agree on a deficit reduction plan or see $1.2 billion in automatic budget cuts, with half coming from the Pentagon.

Of course, Congress failed in its own task, though it is all but certain to change its mind about those budget cuts, which were too deep and too quick. But that is the direction in which this ship is heading, and there is no responsible way to change the course. What remains to be determined is the ultimate destination. It is time to start thinking about that.

The Senate may soon begin that work. In approving measures this week that will help to preserve the Niagara Falls air base, the Armed Services Committee also proposed to create a commission to report back in March on the future structure of the Air Force.

It is an important and overdue task, and committee members should be congratulated for looking forward, but why stop there? The Senate and the House, along with the military services themselves, all need to review the mission, structure and needs of the military to best match declining revenues with 21st century requirements. We should seek to manage the changes that are coming in a way that is responsible and defensible, not simply submit to them.

Supporters of the Niagara Falls air base, including the Niagara Military Affairs Council, need to undertake their own version of this effort as well, if they are to make the case for continued relevance in a fast-changing economic and military landscape. That represents the bases's best hope of an existence that is both long and useful.