A skeptical base-closing commission questioned whether the Defense Department’s plan to reorganize the Air National Guard would mean new risks for homeland security Thursday as the Pentagon and state officials squared off over the proposal.
The proposed shake-up of dozens of Air Guard units has emerged as the most contentious part of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s proposal to close, shrink or expand hundreds of military bases and other installations nationwide.
As a result, the nine-member commission reviewing the proposal gave the Pentagon and states one last chance to argue their cases about the Air Guard before the panel sends a final report _ with changes if necessary _ to President Bush next month.
Defense officials tried to reassure the commission.
“Our responsibilities to support the Department of Homeland Security in their homeland security mission are not impacted adversely by this beyond a level of acceptable risk,” Peter Verga, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, told commissioners.
Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said: “It poses no unacceptable risk.”
Commissioners appeared unconvinced.
“That’s not exactly a wholehearted endorsement, to me anyway,” retorted Harold Gehman, a retired Navy admiral.
“It’s not just perception. I think it’s actual fact that our national defense is being hampered, will be impaired by the proposals of the Department of Air Force,” James Bilbray, a former Nevada congressman, added.
For their part, state adjutants general, who oversee the Air Guard in the states, argued that the plan would prevent units from fulfilling their homeland security missions, including protecting the skies and supporting governors during statewide emergencies.
Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, said the proposal would take the Air National Guard down an uncertain path, leading to a “ripple effect on personnel, readiness and an inability to support homeland security needs, which in our view would be irreversible.”
He urged the commission to review an alternate proposal the organization offered.
Rumsfeld’s Air Guard plan calls for shifting people, equipment and aircraft among at least 54 sites where units now are stationed. Roughly two dozen sites would expand, while about 30 are slated for closure or downsizing. In many cases, units would continue to exist but no planes would be assigned to them.
The Air Force says units without planes would receive new non-flying missions and also would retain their roles in supporting the needs of governors during statewide emergencies.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, the general in charge of the National Guard Bureau, told commissioners that after the base-closing process ends, he intends to eventually restore flying units to states that are left with none. “How do you have the Air Guard with no flying units?” he asked.
The Air Guard is part of the U.S. military force responsible for national security, and the president can activate units for federal missions, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But governors, through their adjutants general, command Air Guard forces during civil disturbances and natural disasters.
The Pentagon says the Air Guard changes are part of an overall effort to reshape the Air Force _ which is to have a smaller but smarter aircraft fleet in the future _ into a more effective and efficient force by putting active duty, Air Reserve and Air Guard units to work alongside one another.
Two states, Pennsylvania and Illinois, have sued over the Air Guard proposal arguing that the Pentagon doesn’t have the authority to move units without each governor’s consent. The Pentagon disagrees. The Justice Department has been asked to weigh in. A commission spokesman said the commission has received an opinion from the Justice Department, but neither the spokesman nor commissioners would disclose what it says.
On the Net:
An interactive map of some affected Air National Guard bases:
Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil
Base closing commission: http://www.defenselink.mil/brac/