Air National Guard hit especially hard in base closings plan

By Philip Dine: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

WASHINGTON — As Missouri officials fight to save the 131st Air National Guard Fighter Wing at Lambert Field, and Illinois does the same for its Air National Guard F-16 unit in Springfield, a broader trend is evident: The Air National Guard stands to take a huge hit nationwide in base closings.

“It’s pretty dramatic,” John Goheen, chief spokesman for the National Guard Association, said Friday. “Our analysis of the data that’s been released thus far reveals that about one-third of our flying units will be grounded.”

Of 88 Guard flying units around the country, 28 are slated to lose their planes — a far greater impact from the base closing process than is being felt by other military installations.

The Air National Guard would lose 166 airplanes out of 1,106 planes — about 15 percent — under the recommendations of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, now being considered by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Koper, retired from the Air Force, said the cuts will come at the expense of homeland security in the Midwest, reduced ties around the countries between local communities and Guard units, and fewer options for governors in emergencies.

The F-15 wing at Lambert, for example, he said, plays a key deterrent role in “ensuring air sovereignty over the skies of St. Louis” and in protecting the “valuable infrastructure all over the Midwest.” Every state now has flying units, but if the recommendations are accepted six no longer will have any, said Koper, president of the National Guard Association, an advocacy group.

What’s behind the local closures that have outraged officials like Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, is an aggressive effort at the national level — where Pentagon and Air Force officials are seeking changes in the Air National Guard and readjusted ties between active and Guard components.

Koper alleged that not only are the changes — including consolidating smaller units into larger ones at the expense of places like St. Louis and Springfield — negative in themselves, but that the overall approach was fashioned without input from the Guard.