WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force is proposing a new mission for an Air National Guard unit based in Niagara Falls that the Pentagon wanted to kill only eight months ago, and it’s one of the fastest growing missions in the military: flying drones.

Air Force officials Friday briefed Capitol Hill staffers on the possibility of locating a “Remote Split Operations Squadron” at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, with more than 500 people assigned to the unit.

That would be the much-sought new mission for the 107th Airlift Wing, which the Pentagon proposed shuttering last spring only to see Congress reverse course. Some 845 people currently work at the Niagara Falls unit, including 580 part-time members of the Guard, so the new mission could come with a loss of personnel.

Nevertheless, local lawmakers said they were thrilled that the Pentagon had officially reversed course and is now proposing a cutting-edge mission for the Air National Guard in Niagara Falls.

“This is a very big step forward,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “Drones are the future.”

They’re also a matter of much controversy, as liberals have protested the Obama administration’s use of drones to strike suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Drones also are used in espionage, and Air Force officials did not tell congressional staffers exactly what kind of drones would be based in Niagara Falls.

Yet it’s the kind of mission that Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Hamburg, has been seeking for the unit since her election to Congress in May 2011.

While noting that the Air Force proposal is still being fleshed out, Hochul said: “It’s definitely better news than we had back in the dark days of February and March, when it looked pretty hopeless” that the 107th could be saved.

The fight for a new mission has been a matter of some controversy in Niagara Falls, with some veteran advocates of the base insisting that the 107th maintain a flying mission.

But both Schumer and Hochul noted that there was nothing in the vague Air Force proposal that would preclude the Air Force from keeping some C-130 transport planes at the base for the 107th to fly as well.

“This would ensure a very strong future for the base, but we still have work to do,” Schumer said, adding: “We want to get as much as we can” for the Niagara base.

Hochul, who lost her bid for re-election to former Erie County Executive Chris Collins in the new 27th District, has led the fight to save the 107th, bringing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Niagara Falls and winning a commitment from him to save the unit.

She warned that the new Air Force proposal is “very preliminary,” and that much could change before it becomes finalized.

Air Force officials didn’t even spell out the proposal on paper to the congressional staffers they met Friday but did say they wanted some version of it to be included in the annual defense authorization bill that will go before Congress.

The drone proposal is part of a revised Air National Guard structure change proposed by the Air Force. It comes after an earlier proposal, which would have shuttered the 107th and other units nationwide, met with harsh criticism from the nation’s governors and a rejection by Congress that Hochul helped engineer.

An internal Air Force document spelling out the bare outlines of the new Air National Guard plan, which was obtained by The Buffalo News, only listed proposed base and mission changes on a state-by-state basis, never mentioning Niagara Falls.

That document indicates that, overall, New York State would lose 214 Air National Guard slots, more than any other state. There are several other Air National Guard units in Syracuse, Schenectady, Newburgh and Suffolk County.

Despite the overall loss of personnel in the state, the proposal sounded good to John Cooper, the vice chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, which has helped save the entire Niagara Falls base from extinction in three consecutive rounds of base closures.

“Certainly we’re encouraged that we’re being considered for this mission,” Cooper said. “It’s a great thing for the 107th and for Western New York.”

While Schumer and Hochul lauded the Air Force proposal, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., was more cautious.

“After pushing for a new mission for the Niagara base, Sen. Gillibrand is pleased with the new mission but is still reviewing the details to see what it means for the number of jobs and the association of the guard and reserves,” said Bethany Lesser, a spokesman for Gillibrand, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.