To the knowledge of Merrell Lane, who should know, Thursday’s visit to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station by Leon Panetta will mark the first time in memory that a defense secretary has come to the base.
That is significant. We presume a man of his high position would not be not coming here to deliver bad news about the base’s future. Why would a Cabinet member for a Democratic administration undermine a Democratic congresswoman in the midst of a difficult re-election? For that reason, we are hopeful either for good news or at least an open-minded approach to evaluating the important role played by this base.
The good news, of course, would be for Panetta to announce that the Pentagon is reversing a recommendation by the Air Force to close the based and diminish the role of the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard as ways of reducing military spending over the next few years. Certainly, the base plays an important enough role in the nation’s defense for it to remain open, but there has been no indication that the defense secretary will make any such announcement, said Lane, chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council.
Others, including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., are confident that Panetta will understand the value of the base after his visit, if he doesn’t already. “The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station plays a vital role for Western New York and the country as a whole,” Schumer said, “and I am confident that Secretary Panetta will share that opinion after he joins my colleagues and me on Thursday.”
Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, whose district includes the base, also expressed optimism about the chance to show the base to Panetta. Hochul, D-Hamburg, is a freshman congresswoman in a tight re-election race against former Erie County Executive Chris Collins.
We support restrained spending in virtually every sector of the federal government, including entitlements and defense. But reductions have to be well-considered and sensible. The plan to close the Niagara Falls base was neither.
In recommending closure, the Air Force contended that a proposal by the Council of Governors to preserve those Air Guard slots would harm military readiness and cost more than the Air Force’s proposed 2013 budget. But the Council of Governors never made that proposal; the Air Force, itself, did. Some critics saw that as a bid – albeit a clumsy one – to make it more difficult for Panetta to retain the Niagara Falls base.
The arguments for keeping this base open are clear. In addition to high rates of local recruitment and retention, the base sits on an international border. It is, thus, ideally positioned both for border operations and for relief missions after natural disasters or terrorist attacks in the Northeast and Canada.
The base also features ideal low-level, night-flying training zones that have made its 914th Airlift Wing one of the best in the Air Force for special operations. In addition, Washington has invested tens of millions of dollars in the base since it survived its close call in 2005.
Panetta knows all of this. He understands the need to balance national defense with a serious plan to reduce the nation’s massive budget deficit. If he doesn’t already know that both goals can be achieved by protecting this important military base, he will after Thursday.