By Sharna Johnson: Freedom Newspapers
Cannon Air Force Base’s transition to a special operations wing is official.
The first airmen and aircraft from a special operations squadron should begin arriving in November as part of a slow buildup that will take three years, Air Force Special Operations Command said Tuesday.
AFSOC takes command of Cannon on Oct. 1.
Tuesday’s announcement brought to an end almost 14 months of uncertainty after the Pentagon announced in June 2006 that Cannon would be getting a new mission.
State officials have touted Cannon as an ideal location for a special operations wing with its varied terrain, air space and ranges, low-level routes, good weather and supportive community.
“Throughout this effort, we have stated that Cannon has a critical role in keeping our country safe,” U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said.
“This confirms it. While its mission may have changed, the commitment to service of the men and women at Cannon has not.”
The 73rd Squadron — which includes approximately 150 personnel and four MC-130Ws — is expected to be at full strength at Cannon by February, AFSOC spokeswoman 1st Lt. Amy Cooper said Tuesday.
The growing 73rd Squadron is expected to reach 12 aircraft by 2009, she said.
Support personnel assigned to the 27th Fighter Wing are expected to remain at Cannon under the new command, Cooper said.
The 27th Fighter Wing was shuttered as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process.
Cannon spokesman, Staff Sgt. Richard Williams, said personnel will drop to around 1,200 when AFSOC takes command in the fall.
Approximately 500 personnel will trickle in over the next year as the new squadrons arrive.
“There’s going to be a bit of a drawdown, (but) the nucleus of what is here now is probably going to stay here,” he said.
“The numbers are going to seem smaller to the community. However, in the grand scheme of things, it’s going to grow — it could take a couple years, but the base will eventually grow.”
The Air Force has said the final active-duty population at Cannon is expected to be 4,400 to 5,600 people, built up over the next three years.
Firm plans for the change of command were made possible Tuesday when the assistant secretary of the Air Force approved AFSOC proposals set forth in an Environmental Impact Statement. The report looked at the effect of the operation on the environment, including impacts to the air and water as well as noise and potential socio-economic changes.
“This is just the next step for us,” Cooper said.
“It’s just one more step closer (to standing up the new mission at Cannon).”
Cooper said firm dates have not yet been set for other arriving aircraft. However a squadron of MQ-1B Predators will follow the 73rd Special Operations Squadron.
The unmanned aircraft, assigned to the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, are stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
AC-130s and CV-22 Ospreys will come later at times yet to be determined, she said.
Williams said though there was early discussion of helicopter units coming to Cannon, there are no current plans to include them in the incoming fleet.
Williams also said the new wing will not be called the 16th Special Operations Unit. The Air Force is in the process of determining a designation for it.
Col. Tim Leahy, former vice commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla., will be the first commander of the New Mexico special operations wing when it stands up at Cannon Oct. 1, according to an AFSOC news release.
May 13, 2005 — Cannon placed on proposed base closure list by Pentagon.
June 24, 2005 — BRAC regional hearing held in Clovis.
Aug. 26, 2005 — BRAC Commission votes to move F-16s and directs Pentagon
to find Cannon new mission.
June 20, 2006 — Pentagon announces Air Force Special Operations 16th Wing has been assigned to Cannon.
Aug. 21, 2007 — Plan to turn Cannon into Special Ops Wing become official with AFSOC slated to take command of Cannon Oct. 1, 2007.
“It’s exciting, very, very good news that we received today. The record of decision is a green light to move forward with this mission. It is a great positive thing for our community, and we plan to do everything in our power to support this new mission. We plan to offer a good quaility of life and offer support to all the military family members.”
— Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega Jr