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Pentagon Suffers Dual Setbacks in Plan to Reorganize Air Defenses

A federal judge ruled the Defense Department lacks the authority to shut down a Pennsylvania Air National Guard unit without the governor’s approval.

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission voted to keep open Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and to temporarily postpone the full closure of Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.

The vote on Ellsworth was one of the most politically charged decisions the commission had to make during its review of base closing recommendations. The fate of the base, the second largest employer in South Dakota, had been a key campaign issue in the 2004 South Dakota Senate race, which saw Republican challenger John Thune unseat longtime Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

Advocates for Thune claimed he had a better chance to save the base because he had more influence with fellow Republican President George W. Bush. Daschle said he had worked successfully to save the facility during previous base closing rounds.

When the base appeared on the Pentagon’s hit list — putting some 6,700 South Dakota jobs at risk — Thune was thrust to the front of the fight to spare the facility.

In the end the commission decided that the Pentagon’s argument for moving Ellsworth’s fleet of B-1 bombers to Texas was not valid and that moving all the bombers to a central location would hurt the Air Force’s ability to respond to crises around the world.

“We have no savings, we’re essentially moving the airplanes from one very, very good base to another very, very good base, which are essentially equal,” said Commissioner Harold Gehman.

Thune was among the local and state officials lobbying to keep the base, who expressed joy and relief at the commission’s decision. But Thune dismissed the political aspects of the fight over Ellsworth.

“This fight was not about me,” the senator said. “This whole decision was about the merits. It had nothing to do with the politics.”

The state’s other senator, Democrat Tim Johnson, said the commission’s action was a “great decision for America’s national security.”

In other Friday business, the commission voted to allow the Pentagon to end most operations at Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, N.M., but to not fully close the facility, leaving it open until 2010 should a needed military mission arise.

The closure of the base would have had the most detrimental economic impact of any on the Pentagon’s list, according to Defense Department figures. Some 5,000 personnel would have been lost had the base closed. As it stands, the base’s contingent of fighter planes will be moved but the base itself will remain open.

New Mexico officials greeted the commission’s decision with mixed reactions. Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson called it a “partial victory.”

The commission started debate on the fate of multiple Air National Guard facilities in the late afternoon on Friday. The Pentagon’s plan to consolidate many of the nation’s Air Guard bases has been opposed by multiple state governors, who normally serve as the commanders in chief of Air and National Guard units, unless the units are “called up” for service by the president. Several states have brought lawsuits or plan to file suit against the Department of Defense, claiming it lacks the authority to close down Guard units without the approval of state governors.

On Friday afternoon, U.S. District Judge John Padova decided in Pennsylvania’s favor, ruling that the Pentagon could shut down the Pennsylvania Willow Grove Air Guard facility but could not deactivate 111th Fighter Wing stationed there over the objections of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

Justice Department attorneys argued that the Base Realignment and Closure law gives the secretary of defense the right to make such moves without consent from governors.

Padova disagreed, ruling that the department’s recommendation to deactivate the unit is “null and void.”

“We’re exceptionally gratified,” Rendell said of the ruling. “I think it’s fair to say we’re elated.”

The decision could have far reaching consequences for the Pentagon’s plan to deactivate Air Guard units in other states.

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