Cannon lands Special Ops unit

(CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle) Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega, left, and Clovis Mayor David Lansford applauded the will and perseverance of area residents for helping Cannon Air Force Base secure a new mission.

By Marlena Hartz : CNJ Staff Writer

The departure from moods that once reigned was evident.

Squeezing into a small room adjacent to the Clovis-Carver Public Library, community members and leaders shook hands, patted one another on the back, and flashed the kinds of smiles that seem almost involuntary, willed by joy.

Thirteen months ago, in that same room, many of the same people met to discuss how to fight for Cannon Air Force Base, recommended for closure by the Department of Defense. They vowed then to save Cannon, an installation that has been a part of the region for more than 50 years.

On Tuesday, they reveled in their victory.

A new wing — frontrunners in the fight against terrorism — will soon occupy the base, vulnerable to closure after its three F-16 squadrons were assigned elsewhere.

“I don’t really know how to describe what happened today, except to say, it’s a little euphoric,” said Clovis Mayor David Lansford.

“For our community to endure in the last 13 months says a lot about the character of the people who inhabit this area.”

The Air Force Special Operations 16th Wing is to make Cannon its home, a move that lifted the looming threat of Cannon closing. New Mexico’s congressional delegation announced the new mission in a conference call Tuesday, which followed an earlier conference call they had with Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne.

Cannon could have shuttered by 2010 if a new mission for the base had not been found. The Pentagon recommended the closure of the base last summer, but a federal commission deemed a purpose could be found for the installation, which locals lauded for its free airspace and capacity to expand.

Victory in the fight to save Cannon came as a result of cooperation among local, state and national forces, according to Clovis and Portales officials, who met in a festive press conference following the congressional telephone conference.

“Today didn’t just happen,” Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega said. “It happened because of the will of this community.”

“Probably what hit us the most was that our identity and relationship with the military was going to change and that was hard to swallow,” said Lansford.

Some estimated that 30 percent of the region’s economy was reliant on Cannon. Other economic heavyweights are agriculture and the railroad.

Members of the New Mexico congressional delegation said they could not gauge how the change in mission would impact the region’s economy. The bulk of military personnel already at the base will remain, however, congressional delegates said.

The base is expected to expand in aircraft, and possibly in personnel, within the next two years, officials said in a celebratory conference call.

“It will change rather dramatically in character,” U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said during the conference.

Five types of aircraft may be stationed at the base west of Clovis: MC-130Hs, AC-130Us, CH-53s, CH-47s and V-22s. The CH-47 and the CH-53 are helicopters, official said. The V-22, or Osprey, is a tilt-rotor aircraft that also operates like a helicopter.

The new mission will bring 94 airplanes to the base — 72 are currently stationed at Cannon — according to local officials. Typically, 200 Army personnel will also train with the 16th Special Operations Wing during any given day, according to Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M.

It is likely Cannon will absorb “roughly three times as many” support personnel and crew members as a result of the mission change, Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M, said, though officials were cautious about the numbers. They said they expected to have more details within 10 days.

More than 4,000 active-duty members and civilians are currently stationed at Cannon, including nearly 300 officers and 3,200 enlisted airmen, according to figures previously provided by Cannon Air Force Base.

“(This mission) is very different than the one (Cannon) has had historically,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

Special operations training will be largely conducted at night, according to members of the congressional delegation. The F-16 jets currently stationed at Cannon conduct most training exercises during the day.

The transition of personnel, planes and missions will begin in October 2007, although some personnel and equipment shifts will begin immediately, officials said.

The 27th Fighter Wing flag will be replaced with the flag of the 16th Special Operations Wing on Oct. 1, when officials have planned a change of command ceremony, officials said.

The 16th wing is currently stationed at Hurlburt Field in the Florida Panhandle. The bulk of special operations training is also conducted there, and that installation will remain the command for Air Force Special Operations. Smaller commands are spread around the country, as well as overseas. The units specialize in unconventional warfare, psychological operations, special reconnaissance and other special operations areas, according to the Web site www.globalsecurity.org.

“This is an historic, momentous occasion for New Mexico,” Gov. Bill Richardson said.

The Air Force Special Operations Command was attracted to Cannon largely as a result of the region’s resemblance to hot zones in the Middle East, officials said. They were also lured by the Melrose Bombing Range, approximately 66,000 acres of training land perched about 25 miles from Cannon.

“You don’t want to train in Alaska to fight in Iraq,” said Randy Harris, a staunch Cannon advocate and chairman of Operation Keep Cannon.

The Command had been looking for a Western base as the result of heightened terrorism threats.

The military branch is expected to mushroom significantly in the coming years.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said he envisions a growing role for forces that can function in small units, sometimes clandestinely, to hunt down and kill terrorists and to work with friendly foreign forces.

“This is a great fit for a mission in New Mexico,” Harris said.

“(It) makes sense for a lot of reasons.”