The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A federal panel voted Friday to accept the Pentagon’s recommendation to send Cannon Air Force Base’s three F-16 fighter squadrons elsewhere — but stopped short of closing Cannon.
Instead, the commission voted 6-1, with two abstentions, to turn it into an enclave, keeping the eastern New Mexico base open in a much-reduced form while the Defense Department searches for another mission for it.
“It’s not a closure; it allows a facility to remain open in a diminished state,” said Commissioner Samuel Skinner, who offered the amendment.
The decision asks the secretary of defense to re-examine the closure recommendation and find a new mission for the base. If a new mission is defined by Dec. 31, 2009, Cannon can be designated an active base again; if not, the Department of Defense can close it.
“We’re declaring a partial victory,” Gov. Bill Richardson said after the amendment was proposed. “… Cannon stays alive; it stays open.”
It was not immediately clear how many people would remain at Cannon under the enclave designation.
“During this enclave period here, a lot can happen,” one of the leaders of the effort to save the base, Clovis banker Randy Harris, told a news conference after the vote. “So there’s a big difference between being closed and this.”
A coalition of state and local elected and business leaders spent an intense three months trying to overturn the Pentagon’s recommendation to close Cannon. Pentagon figures showed closing it would move or eliminate more than 2,700 jobs on base and cost an additional 2,000 indirect jobs. Area leaders argued that would devastate the economy.
The state’s congressional delegation immediately vowed to find another mission for Cannon, suggesting possibilities ranging from obtaining a future operational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to airborne laser work and unmanned vehicle missions.
Andrew Schulman, legislative aide for Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said it likely will take 18 to 24 months to transfer Cannon’s F-16s, and that New Mexico leaders believe there’s a potential for the Army to use Cannon afterward.
The Army is bringing troops back from Europe, and many are slated to go to Fort Bliss, Texas, which Schulman said isn’t ready. Cannon is relatively close, and could take people once the planes leave, he said.
Commissioners said the decision over Cannon was one of the most agonizing they faced in the entire BRAC process, forcing them to weigh what was good for the nation against what was good for a community that they praised for its resolute support of the military.
Earlier, the commission turned down an amendment offered by retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd Newton to realign rather than close Cannon. That vote was four in favor, three against and two excusing themselves. Five votes were needed to save Cannon.
Newton contended the Pentagon failed to consider “strategic depth” — what would happen to the force in the next 20 years.
“Its airspace is extremely valuable to training,” said Newton, who proposed replacing Cannon’s current fighter wing with training for pilots and weapons systems officers, and urging the secretary of defense to find other missions for the base.
He argued that even with restrictions, Cannon’s airspace is extremely valuable to training.
“Once we lose that airspace, it’s going to be very, very difficult to regain that airspace again,” he warned.
But chairman Anthony Principi said that despite Cannon’s long service and the “absolutely devastating” effect closing it would have on the community, “I don’t believe it’s appropriate for the commission to dictate to the secretary of the Air Force or the secretary of defense that all pilot training or a component of pilot training should be done at Cannon Air Force Base.”
Even Skinner, proposing his amendment to keep Cannon alive, said he believed its F-16s should go elsewhere.
The BRAC process “does not allow us to be everything to everybody” and the commission shouldn’t run the risk of imposing its will on the Pentagon, he said.
Skinner described the enclave designation as giving the secretary of defense a chance to double-check his decision, making sure the nation wouldn’t later regret closing Cannon.