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Fairchild, city must move on

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

The deliberations of the commission charged with assessing U.S. military bases did not conclude quite the way Spokane officials hoped, but they are moving on. Strategically and tactically, that’s the right call.

Tactically, because the results, while disappointing, probably cannot be reversed. Strategically, because there’s no point squawking over the loss of eight Air National Guard planes when the long-term goal is preservation of Fairchild Air Force Base. Other opportunities will come along.

Friday, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, could not be dissuaded from moving the KC-135 tankers assigned to the 141st Air Refueling Wing to another base in Iowa. The 172 KC-135s the Air Force has available for its Guard units nationally will only go so far, as one commission member noted Friday. Even if there were eight more to spare, they likely would have gone to other units with more pressing needs that those of the 141st, which can maintain readiness by training with tankers assigned to Fairchild’s 92nd Air Refueling Wing.

If the concept of a flying unit without planes seems odd, keep in mind BRAC preserved a New Mexico Air Force base but voted to remove all 60 of its aircraft. In a process with so many moving parts, and $50 billion in savings at stake by Pentagon estimates, there were bound to be a few incongruities.

For Spokane, the changes may mean the loss of about 200 jobs. Fortunately, the area’s expanding economy can probably absorb those positions, particularly if those let go by the Guard have highly desirable mechanical skills.

But what Spokane officials had hoped for was an influx of units assigned to bases targeted for closure. Instead, those loose ends were tied up by placing the units at bases whose fate was less secure than that of Fairchild.

BRAC’s work may not be over, depending on whether or not President Bush accepts the commission’s recommendations. Some are far afield from the Pentagon’s. Rumsfeld has expressed unhappiness with some outcomes, but stopped short of saying how he will advise the president, who can suggest changes to BRAC before a final version goes to Congress. The lawmakers will have 45 days to overturn the plan. If they do not act, the changes will be made over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Rep. Cathy McMorris says she will turn her attention to expediting Air Force purchase of a new generation of tankers to replace the aging KC-135. McMorris, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, says the Air Force is working its way through that process slowly because of the scandal involving Boeing that shot down an earlier procurement effort.

“It is extremely important that we now focus on getting replacement tankers for Fairchild to ensure they have the newest and best equipment available,” McMorris says.

Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce President Rich Hadley says its Forward Fairchild task force will also focus on the new tanker. The Air Force has already said the first planes will be based at Fairchild.

But, he adds, the team will also work on strengthening its relationships with the Air Force’s Education and Training Command in San Antonio, Texas, and Air Mobility Command outside St. Louis. Fairchild’s Survival School falls under the purview of the former, its tankers the latter. Many of the decisions that will affect those missions will be made at the intermediate level, not necessarily at the Pentagon, he says.

Hadley adds that Spokane will get a unique opportunity to bring its assets to the attention of a high-ranking Pentagon official next week, when Assistant Secretary of the Army Keith Eastin visits to commemorate the 9/11 attacks, and deliver an update of the war against terror. The Army plans to repatriate some units from Europe, and Fairchild has an abundance of room. Visits are also planned at Itronix and ISR, local companies that do significant business with the Pentagon.

Bottom line, BRAC could have been a while lot crueler to Fairchild and Spokane, Hadley says. “The base is open and 95 percent of the economic impact is here and will grow over time.”

That’s the proper perspective, one Olympia might keep in mind. Gov. Christine Gregoire could chose to follow the examples of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, which challenged Pentagon control over Guard units in those states. Although there may be a legitimate legal issue in play, better to focus on how Washington can remain a good home to its important military facilities.

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