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Fairchild’s Fate Still Uncertain, General Warns Pentagon’s Cost-Cutting Spotlight Could Focus On Local Air Force Base, Consultant Says

An Air Force plan to cut back bases in Montana and North Dakota may turn the costcutting spotlight on Fairchild Air Force Base, a military consultant warned Thursday.

The West Plains base could escape all consideration of closure this year. Or it could be caught up in Pentagon maneuvering, said John Allen, a former Fairchild wing commander hired by area business groups to prepare a strategy against possible closure of the base.

“Things are pretty squirrelly right now,” Allen, a retired Air Force general, told the editorial board of The Spokesman-Review.

Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall is preparing a preliminary list of bases to close, but apparently it’s not long enough, Allen said.

Defense Secretary William Perry, who has the final say on which bases the Pentagon will ask to close, might add some Air Force facilities.

If Perry doesn’t, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission could, Allen said.

Widnall reportedly will propose partial closure of two bases, Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls, Mont., and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

Both bases have KC-135 tankers and Minuteman missiles. But Widnall’s proposal apparently would remove only the tankers from Malmstrom and only the missiles from Grand Forks, leaving both bases open with smaller forces.

Allen said he doubts such a proposal will be approved because keeping bases open at reduced levels doesn’t save as much money as closing them completely. “The job of the commission is to close bases,” he said.

If the Pentagon or the commission decides to close Grand Forks completely, the commission almost certainly would compare those costs with closing Fairchild, Allen said. Both are major tanker facilities, and the commission compares similar bases to ensure its final decisions are fair.

Staying off the Pentagon’s initial closure list, which will be released late this month, is the most important task, he said. In the last five years, 85 percent of all bases on that list have been closed.

Bases on the commission’s comparison list, which will be released in mid-May, are far less likely to be closed, Allen said. But because the military has already shut down its marginal bases, the competition will be fierce and the differences between bases on the two lists could be small.

“Fairchild has a lot of things going for it,” Allen said. Spokane should be prepared to list those assets and argue the base could take on even more military missions.

A special task force with members from local agencies is preparing arguments in favor of Fairchild. The group plans to spend up to $200,000, and will ask Spokane city and county to kick in $20,000 each.

City Manager Roger Crum and County Administrator Jim Lindow said they have not yet received the formal requests for taxpayers’ money, but expect them soon.

After they arrive, the City Council and County Board of Commissioners will have to vote on whether to spend public funds for that purpose.