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WDAY: The News Leader

Published January 27, 2012, 10:32 AM

Dakotas officials wary of proposed defense cuts

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Proposals to slow the growth of the nation's defense spending could mean big changes to the military infrastructure in the Dakotas, officials say.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Proposals to slow the growth of the nation's defense spending could mean big changes to the military infrastructure in the Dakotas, officials say.

Of particular concern is a Pentagon proposal for another round of domestic base closures. In 2005, officials had to fight to save Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota lost its refueling tanker mission. The Grand Forks base gained an unmanned aircraft mission, but the base's population was cut about in half.

Another round of closures "was inevitable. It has to come," F. John Marshall, who has led Grand Forks' base retention effort over the past 20 years, told the Grand Forks Herald. "We will be on the list. I'm sure we will."

Some believe there is little chance Congress will approve a new of round base closures in a presidential election year. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in statements that they believe savings from base-closing rounds are questionable.

If a round does happen, Ellsworth might be in a stronger position than it was in 2005, when it was targeted for closure but eventually survived. In addition to serving as home for two of the three B-1 bomber units in the Air Force, Ellsworth has taken on most of the Air Force payroll and financial management duties and this year might also get a drone mission.

"We have paid attention over the years," Pat McElgunn, executive director of the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce Ellsworth Task Force, told the Argus Leader. "We haven't walked away and said, 'That was a good victory' (in 2005). We've paid attention on how to go through these (base-closing) processes."

North Dakota officials also are worried about the proposed elimination of the C-27J Spartan cargo aircraft. The state Air National Guard's 119th Wing in Fargo is to get four of the planes, with the first arriving late this year or early next year.

"Whether responding to ice storms or flooding, the C-27J provides the National Guard with the ability to deliver personnel and emergency supplies in an efficient and cost-effective manner," Gov. Jack Dalrymple said in a statement. "We will do all that we can to impress on the Department of Defense the essential role that this aircraft mission has in serving North Dakota and to get them to reconsider this proposal."

Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, the state Guard commander, said the Guard was promised the planes at the end of the last base-closing round. The possibility that the promise will not be kept has resulted in "a lot of anxious people across the state," he told The Forum.

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