Leader Blues

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

TOP STORY>> Officials tell panel base can take on growth

IN SHORT: Central Arkansas’ top guns remind BRAC commissioners of LRAFB’s
ability to expand its mission.

By John Hofheimer
Leader staff writer

Cong. Vic Snyder, D-Little Rock, and Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim traveled to San Antonio Monday to reinforce to members of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission the correctness of the Defense Department’s decision to expand the mission at Little Rock Air Force Base.

Congressmen, senators and local representatives from bases slated to lose planes, missions and personnel to the Little Rock base have been lobbying the commission in favor of the status quo, so the Jacksonville delegation testified in favor of the current BRAC proposal. That proposal would bring 66 additional C-130s at the base and about 3,900 new jobs. Swaim, Snyder and others sought to ward off efforts of bases slated to lose planes, missions and personnel to Little Rock.

In the minutes allotted, officials told commissioners that LRAFB was the premiere C-130 base in the country, that conditions at the base were optimal for training C-130 crews and stressed the community’s 50-year embrace of the base.

The BRAC commission will decide by late summer whether to approve the Department of Defense recommendations. The president and Congress must also sign off on the plan before the restructuring takes effect, likely by the end of the year.

Four of the nine BRAC commissioners attended Monday’s hearing at the Henry B. Gonzalez Conven-tion Center in downtown San Antonio.

“There are no easy decisions here,” Snyder told the commissioners. “You have two chores. First, to make the right decisions, and second, to have a decision-making process, the conclusions of which some will disagree with, but all will have no doubt regarding its fairness, transparency, and integrity.”

Swaim said the delegation’s work was hindered by the relatively short—eight minutes—amount of time allocated for testimony about Little Rock Air Force Base.

Local advocates lobbying to keep 29 C-130s at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, rather than moving them to Little Rock had much more time to make their case. Most of the Arkansas time was devoted to senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor and others working to keep the Air National Guard’s 188th Fighter Wing based at Fort Smith, which is slated to close, Swaim said.

Others in the Arkansas delegation supporting Little Rock Air Force Base were Bart Gray, Paul Latture, Mike Wilson and Leon Matthews—all past presidents of the base’s community council.

Swaim, in addition to being mayor, is in his second term as community council president.

“My job was to make sure the BRAC commission understood we were glad to have (the base) in the community and glad to have additions and willing to do what was necessary for services and infrastructure,” Swaim said Tuesday.

Swaim, in his comments, noted that 50 years ago, community leaders bought the 6,000 acres upon which the base now sits for $1 million and presented it to the Air Force. Swaim said he and Snyder were changing their prepared remarks right up to the last minute.

Swaim commented on the local impact of having more missions here and pointed to the future joint education center between the city and Little Rock Air Force Base, while Snyder commented on the state-wide impact the base increase would have.

Swaim told the commissioners that the local communities would do whatever was necessary in terms of additional services and infrastructure to support the new jobs and missions proposed for the base. He stressed the base’s recognition as a C-130 center of excellence, the excellent flying conditions, the drop zone, assault landing strip and adequate ramp and runway space.

As evidence of that, both Swaim and Snyder told the commissioners that a couple dozen or more C-130s and helicopters were evacuated to the base last weekend from Florida to avoid possible hurricane damage.

He told them that the community had passed a $5 million tax to support better education through joint education facility.

“We think the evaluation of Little Rock Air Force Base and its ability to accept additional missions is accurate and we encourage you to review the data and send the Little Rock Air Force Base recommendations forward to the president for approval,” Swaim testified. “We’re confident that our community is prepared to handle the recommended consolidation.”

Wilson and Latture, executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority, said Swaim and Snyder worked well together in their limited amount of speaking time of about five minutes each.

“They made a good team,” Wilson said.

He said Swaim did especially well at fitting his message into a tight package.
“I thought it was excellent as usual,” he said. “Pointed, brief and forceful. Very good.”

“All of the presentations were really factual,” Latture said. “Your oratory didn’t win you any prize.”

He said the hearings were all kept very factual and the BRAC commissioners showed little facial expression, if any.

“I hope they took it well, but you couldn’t tell,” Latture said. “There were no questions.”
Wilson, on the other hand, seemed to think it went well.

“I think they welcomed support for the position that the Department of Defense has taken,” he said. “Those commissioners are pretty knowledgeable about the nation’s defense and bases in general.”

Wilson said the lack of questions was encouraging compared to the few questions directed at people arguing against upcoming decisions.

“My nine years of interaction with Little Rock Air Force Base made evident to me the ability of this fine base to play an even greater role in our national defense,” Snyder told the commissioners.

He stressed the intensely close working relationship between the active Air Force and the Air Guard at the base in training instructor pilots. 

“Little Rock Air Force Base for years has been a model for how the Air Guard and active component as a team can thrive together,” said the congressman.

 “There are several important considerations in the C-130 community. Overall, the fleet is declining in number due to wing box problems, the slow rate of C-130J acquisition and the currently stalled C-130 Aviation Moderniza-tion Program,” Snyder said.

“The high rate of use of C-130s means it is desirable to increase the operational availability and flexibility of the fleet. We have to maximize the assets we have, and we believe that the Air Force’s plan for the Active Duty C-130s does this.  It is also my hope that centralizing more airplanes will allow the aircrews and their families to have more stability in assignments and lives,” Snyder said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson, former undersecretary for Homeland Security, testified in favor of keeping the 188th Fighter Wing stationed at Fort Smith.
“The military capabilities index, as calculated by the DOD, falls short of measuring the actual military vaule of Fort Smith,” he said.

He called the 188th’s current mission “vital to the homeland defense Air Sovereignty Alert Mis-sion,” and said reassigning the F-16s would deprive the nation of “a key air defense facility capable of responding to terrorist threats to the southwestern interior of the United States.”