Mission team to visit Cannon

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers

They’re not exactly sure where their trip will end, but supporters of Cannon Air Force Base insist they’re making great time.

An eight-member mission team from the Air Force is scheduled to visit Cannon today to begin evaluating possible new missions for the base.

The Base Closure and Realignment Commission rejected the Pentagon’s proposal in August to close Cannon, opting instead to keep it open temporarily. Cannon’s three F-16 squadrons will be moved, and the base will close if a new mission can’t be found by Dec. 31, 2009.

Randy Harris of the base support group Committee of Fifty said the Air Force visit, scheduled to wrap up on Friday, is good news for Cannon.

“We know this is a very good sign and a very good first step that the Air Force is following what the BRAC legislation said,” Harris said. “You have to make sure the data you collect is current and you have to get the true picture of what exists in New Mexico.”

Community leaders have said the Air Force team is coming to assess the base’s infrastructure, and they plan to meet with the mission team while they’re here.

“Our job is to represent our communities, and our communities’ relations to Cannon Air Force Base,” Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega said. “That’s what we’ve been doing from day one, and we’ll continue to do that. Part of our role is to welcome them to the community, to express the value of Cannon being located in eastern New Mexico.”

Should Cannon receive a new mission, New Mexico’s congressional delegation expects the base’s available airspace will weigh heavily on what type of mission will arrive.

“We obviously feel that Cannon is well-suited for a flying mission,” said Matt Letourneau, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. “That would be our preference, but we’re not going to be telling them we want this or that.

“They’re there as observers. They’re not policy makers, they’re not making decisions. They’re going to evaluate what they see in terms of facilities. We’ve obviously communicated our feelings about Cannon numerous times all the way from the Secretary of Defense to the Air Force secretary.”

The public affairs department at Cannon declined Monday to answer questions specific to the tour and said an Air Force representative would be available for that purpose today.

Even before the final BRAC hearing in August, there have been many suggestions for new missions, including the Joint Strike Fighter.

Earlier this month, Congress agreed to language that ensures construction projects continue at Cannon as the Pentagon seeks a new mission.

Without the language that addressed Cannon’s status, funding would not have been obligated for bases and programs closed or realigned during this year’s BRAC process.

“The whole BRAC process had to take its course, and it did,” Ortega said. “Our congressional delegation has done a very, very good job of moving this process in a positive direction for … Cannon Air Force Base and the communities.”

What future Cannon and the community will see, and when that will happen, is still up in the air.

“Are we 10 percent (toward a new mission)? Are we 90 percent? That’s speculation,” Harris said. “The thing is, we’re not waiting two or three years. In the next few months, we’ll see this process come to fruition.

“No one gains anything by waiting. It’s not to the benefit of the Department of Defense to wait either, because they have budgets, they have timelines. Everyone’s got to move forward.”