Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

EDITORIAL>> More missions for air base

What a week this has been for Little Rock Air Force Base and the surrounding communities, which can breathe easier after the Pentagonís announcement Friday that the base will remain open and welcome new missions while other military facilities are shutting down as part of the base realignment and closure review.

What a week indeed: As we waited for word on the latest round of military base closings, contractors on Tuesday began demolishing many of the aging homes on the base as part of a $100 million rebuilding program undertaken by a private firm that also holds a 50-year lease on new housing worth $400 million.

That kind of investment suggested that the base, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, was in no danger of closing any time soon. We were further reassured on Wednesday when, after months of pressure from congressional delegations, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced he would not cut the C-130J program after all as he had threatened months ago.

Had Rumsfeld not reversed course, the air base would have trained far fewer C-130J crews. With the Pentagonís renewed commitment to the new transport planes, the military will acquire well over 100 new C-130Js, almost twice the number Rumsfeld had wanted, increasing the training mission at the base. But what the Pentagon gives, it can also take away: It was also announced Friday that the new planes previously assigned to LRAFB will go to Air National Guard units, including four to the 189th ANG, which is a tenant at the base, and three others to bases elsewhere.

The best news Friday morning was that weíll acquire more missions from bases that are on the chopping block, including dozens more planes and nearly 4,000 additional personnel, increasing the total base population from 7,166 to 11,064, a 53 percent jump. This is a heartening development, good for the community and the nation.

Pentagon officials had hinted for months that not only was it unlikely that Little Rock Air Force Base would find itself on the list of bases recommended for closings, but it could expect more missions as other bases are phased out and their people and equipment given new homes right here at LRAFB.

Officials also hinted at the possibility of additional improvements on base, such as another runway to accommodate the growing traffic anticipated in the coming years.

The base continues to do well for several reasons: It is centrally located for fast deployment around the globe, from Aghanistan to Iraq, from Panama to Oman. The 314th Airlift Wingís training mission on base enjoys unlimited open skies and a varied terrain to practice air drops.

In addition, a friendly community that is glad to have the base here and a vigilant congressional delegation, along with an active Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council and neighboring chambers of commerce, have all helped make LRAFB one of the premier bases in the nation.

As we have noted here many times, investments at the base during the 1990s reached well over $100 million, from squadron headquarters to new dormitories, from a new air traffic control tower to fiber optic telephone lines.

More recently, the base has installed a $40 million training center for C-130J crews with flight simulators, built a new physical fitness center and much more. Add to that the housing program, and weíre well on our way toward an economic investment thatís close to $200 million.

We cannot praise enough the work of the civilian groups that have lobbied over the years in behalf of the air base: Only last month, members of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council visited Pentagon officials, where they received word that more good things were in store for the base.

As pleased as we are with this weekís developments, we could hardly suppress a chuckle when we noticed Sen. Trent Lottís home town of Pascagoula, Miss., will lose its naval station. Before he was deposed as the powerful majority leader, Lott tried to take from us all the C-130Js he could get his hands on. Now all heís got left is a bridge they named after him in his home town.

Our state has done well under this latest round of base realignment and closings, with only the El Dorado Armed Forces Reserve Center and the Stone Army Reserve Center in Pine Bluff headed for the chopping block.

A Base Realignment and Closure Committee will take up the Pentagonís recommendations, and when all the disappointed congressional delegations that are unhappy about losing their bases finally have had their say, the committee can then accept or reject the Pentagonís list of closings and send it along to President Bush and Congress for their approval.

For us here, itís a 50th anniversary present indeed.