Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

5-23 Cannon Closure

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE � This may be a case of the irresistible force and immovable object. It's the Pentagon against the communities of Clovis and Portales over the closing of Cannon Air Force Base.
This year's Pentagon base realignment and closure recommendations appear to be better thought out than the four that occurred between 1988 and 1995. And I'll venture to predict that they will be more vigorously lobbied by the Defense Department than ever before.
And in the other corner is Clovis, along with nearby Portales, which have vowed an all-out fight to preserve the base. They will be assisted by a very committed Gov. Bill Richardson and a united congressional delegation.
The closure recommendation came as a shock to all concerned. One of Gov. Richardson's first moves upon becoming governor over two years ago was to establish an Office of Military Base Planning and Support, designed to head off any attempts to close a New Mexico military base.
Staffed by retired Gen. Hanson Scott, the commission looked at what it could do to strengthen all our bases. The efforts at Cannon have been substantial.
Chief among them is the soon-to-be-completed New Mexico Training Range Initiative, designed to expand the flight training space around Cannon by 700 square miles and allow planes to reach supersonic speeds at 10,000 feet, compared with the current 30,000 feet.
That will increase sonic booms in the 3,300 square-mile area threefold. Area residents have bitten the bullet and agreed to the proposal in order to keep Cannon secure.
The military has said it still plans to proceed with the training range. But the Pentagon is in for a rude awakening. Supersonic airspace anywhere in the nation is extremely hard to find. The once cooperative Curry County appear ready to turn hostile if the government decides to take 2,600 jobs and leave only sonic booms.
Cannon supporters figure they have several factors working in their favor. The Pentagon says it is concerned about economic impact on a community. The Clovis area will be harder hit than any other base site on the closure list.
Cannon's 320 days a year of flying weather ranks near the top, as does its unimpeded airspace and lack of encroachment on the base by the surrounding community. There is plenty of room to add another wing of air strength, which Cannon supporters were preparing to do when the shocking news came.
The Defense Department's justification for closing Cannon was not anything the base's backers had previously mentioned. In it's justification, the Pentagon cites Cannon's "unique F-16 force structure mix."
The base has three different levels of fighter squadrons. Each squadron is compared with bases that have similar squadrons in that category. And each of those other bases already had been determined to have a higher military value than Cannon.
If Cannon's unique force structure mix is what got it into trouble, it is interesting that none of our state leaders apparently knew. Instead of putting together a supersonic training range, maybe they should have been working on changing Cannon's mission that made it a sitting duck.
Obviously, the job of closing bases is a tough one. The process got started as the Cold War was ending. It was part of the peace dividend the first President Bush promised.
Albuquerque's Kirtland Air Force Base was caught in the fourth round of closures. A major response by our congressional delegation and an Albuquerque committee got it turned around. That committee still is functioning, with a major focus being to strengthen Kirtland's unusual mission.
Since Kirtland did it, there is hope for Cannon. But it won't be easy. An average of 15 percent of the Pentagon recommendations have been reversed in the past. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is arguing that these recommendations are so interdependent that none can be changed.
MON, 5-23-05

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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