Keeping Cannon now means finding new mission

David Stevens: Freedom Newspapers

It may be two years or more before the F-16 fighter jets and their crews and support staff leave Cannon Air Force Base, but the ideas for what happens after that are already rolling in.

Andrew Schulman, a legislative aide for Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said there’s a potential for the Army to use Cannon. 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.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said he thinks Cannon would be an ideal home for the Joint Strike Fighter jet, which is scheduled for release around 2009.

“I think that would make a lot of sense,” Bingaman said in a telephone interview. “That’s what (BRAC Commissioner Lloyd) Newton said and he speaks with a lot of knowledge and authority in that area.”

Members of the Washington Committee of the Committee of Fifty, which has long supported Cannon Air Force Base and is leading the charge to keep it despite the Pentagon’s recommendation for closure, will meet Monday. That meeting will be the first organized effort to plan for a future made possible last week when Base Closure and Realignment commissioners ordered the Department of Defense to seek a new mission for Cannon.

The Clovis City Commission is then scheduled to meet at 7 a.m. Tuesday for a briefing from the Washington Committee of the Clovis/Curry County Chamber Committee of Fifty.

Terry Moberly, one of the leaders in the “Keep Cannon” effort, said he expects planes and personnel will begin leaving Cannon early in 2007. He said they’re not likely to leave any earlier because many of their future homes won’t be ready to accept them until then.

He expects all the planes will be gone by 2008. But he also said “about half” of Cannon’s personnel are there for support and not directly tied to the planes, including maintenance workers, cooks and other support crew. “I would think they would stay to maintain the base until the end,” he said.

Numerous public officials have said they have no idea how many personnel might remain at Cannon after the planes leave, but most remain upbeat about the base’s future, confident a new mission can be secured before the Dec. 31, 2009, deadline for closure set by BRAC commissioners.

Cannon backers say its unencroached land and air space are ideal for any number of future missions.

Newton, a retired Air Force general, proposed to BRAC commissioners that Cannon realign and become a training base for fighter pilots and weapons systems officers.

Newton contended the Pentagon failed to consider “strategic depth” — what would happen to the Air Force in the next 20 years.

“(Cannon’s) airspace is extremely valuable to training,” said Newton.

But only three BRAC commissioners joined him in the vote to realign Cannon. Since five votes were needed, the measure failed. A second motion to keep Cannon open if a new mission could be found before 2010 was approved, giving the half-century-old base new life.

The chance of success is realistic, supporters insist.

“You’ve got to understand the (planes) don’t leave for 2 1/2 years or more,” Domenici said in a telephone interview on Friday. “The point is we have that much time, knowing that if we find something, Cannon is still available. I think it’s our job to start right quick, and I mean absolutely as soon as we can, looking for things. … We’ll put some experts on it and we’ll find some things.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.