TOWN OF NIAGARA – A delegation from the Niagara Military Affairs Council traveled to Washington last week to continue the work of promoting new missions and equipment for the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
The continuing effort is aimed at trying to pre-empt the possibility that the base, Niagara County’s largest employer, might be threatened with closing for a third time.
“Once you hit that list, there’s an 86 percent chance you’re going to stay on that list. Now’s the time to be prepared,” said Anthony J. Principi, a former secretary of veterans affairs hired by the county last year to work out plans for the base.
Principi knows all about the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. He was chairman of the last edition, which in 2005 decided to take Niagara Falls off the Pentagon’s shutdown list. His firm contains several former BRAC members and top advisers to past editions of the panel.
County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz said the county has spent about $100,000 of a $300,000 state base-protection grant it received last year on the Principi Group. After a report suggesting possible new missions for the Falls base, the firm is working on a second confidential report detailing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
“I’m not free to divulge the contents,” Principi said. “We’re not lobbyists for them. We’re advisers.”
Principi said the soonest another base realignment commission might be convened is 2017.
President Obama has “made requests in the past that Congress has ignored, especially in regard to the excess infrastructure, especially in the Air Force. They say they have 30 percent excess infrastructure,” Principi said.
But whether or not Congress goes along, the behind-the-scenes battle of the bases never stops.
“There’s an awful lot of decisions being made under the BRAC radar,” Principi said. “They can move people, move planes. They can’t close an installation.”
W. Robin Pfeil, a retired Air Force Reserve colonel who serves on the NIMAC board, led the trip to the capital. He said the delegation met with Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Chris Collins, R-Clarence, and with staffers for Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, and Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, both D-N.Y.
He said the delegation pushed for the return of eight of the latest model of the C-130 transport plane to Niagara Falls from a base in Minnesota, where they were transferred several years ago.
The Minneapolis base was ordered closed by the 2005 BRAC, but it has received an extension and is still operating. Pfeil said the hope is that the Minneapolis site will close and that the eight C-130s there will be shifted back to the Falls, where they first entered service in 1991.
“We want to be sure airplanes and airplane-type activities continue at Niagara,” Pfeil said.
Next year, drone-control units are scheduled to be installed at Niagara Falls, but that will be “people sitting in a small room. The drones they’re going to be controlling might be in Afghanistan,” Pfeil said.
NIMAC wants actual drones to be parked at the Falls base. “That’s how you get the manning,” Glatz said.
Pfeil said his group made the argument that Niagara Falls is a better location than other upstate bases because it offers a shorter flight to the restricted military airspace over Lake Ontario than, for example, Hancock Air Force Base in Syracuse.
John A. Cooper Sr., chairman of NIMAC, said construction is to start this spring on a C-130 flight simulator at Niagara Falls, to be completed next year. Once it opens, about 400 service members will visit each year for training. The improved guest housing and dining facilities built at the base in recent years will come in handy, he said. And it’s another argument for keeping the base open.
“Construction doesn’t guarantee anything,” Cooper said, “but our plan for building on the base had a strategic nature.”