Everyone exhale. The Air National Guard unit in Niagara Falls is on the verge of acquiring a new mission, one that will ensure the 107th Airlift Wing will remain stationed there.
It is even possible that the decision will prompt the addition of new jobs at the base if, along with its new mission of directing the flights of unmanned drone aircraft, it is also able to keep some or all of the four C-130 cargo planes the Air Force has been threatening to reassign.
Either way, it’s another resounding victory for the base that the Air Force keeps trying to ground. Credit goes to both of New York’s senators, Charles M. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, and especially to Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Hamburg, who worked diligently to save the base. Hochul lost her re-election bid to former Erie County Executive Chris Collins, but she is going out on a note of triumph. If Western New Yorkers are lucky, they haven’t heard the last of her.
The new mission will put the air base on the cutting edge of 21st century military technology, and should help to preserve it from further efforts to eliminate it, at least for the foreseeable future. While drone aircraft are not expected to take off or land at the base, their flights will be directed by Guard members based there.
The new mission for the base was approved in a fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill that was finalized by a House-Senate conference committee on Tuesday. Both chambers of Congress are expected to approve it.
What remains uncertain is the fate of the four C-130s, which could yet be sent elsewhere. In fact, one of them is currently on loan to another base. Meanwhile, the other unit at the base, the Air Force Reserve’s 914th Airlift Wing, will continue to fly its eight C-130s under terms of the House-Senate committee agreement.
Lawmakers are continuing the work of keeping the 107th’s cargo planes here, arguing – correctly – that they are crucial to disaster response efforts in the Northeast. We presume that work will continue into the new year and that Collins, by then sworn in to office, will enthusiastically join the effort. Retaining those aircraft would also help to maintain employment levels at the base and could even result in the hiring of additional personnel.
The decision puts Niagara Falls squarely in the middle of a political debate about the appropriate use of drones, both in the military and domestically. We support their use in a military context, but they have opened a legitimate debate about the targeted killings for which they have become famous.
While drones have been crucial in tracking down a new kind of enemy, Washington needs to come to an agreement on the circumstances under which they should be used and who should have the authority to issue what amounts to a death sentence for anyone targeted. That now becomes a more relevant issue for Western New Yorkers.
For today, though, the base has once again averted the Air Force’s misguided effort to shut it down. That’s a huge victory for those who led the fight to keep it open, to the regional economy and to everyone whose family depends on it for their livelihoods.